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VC firm hires medical officer to boost drug development

CEO Noubar Afeyan (left) and new chief medical officer Michael Rosenblatt. Flagship’s companies are conducting 44 clinical trials.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

CAMBRIDGE —Flagship Ventures has hired a former Tufts medical dean and top official at the drug giant Merck & Co. to be its chief medical officer, believed to be the first executive to hold that position at a major venture capital firm.

The hiring of Dr. Michael Rosenblatt, set to be disclosed Wednesday, adds a leading biomedical figure in the Boston area and nationally to the team at Flagship, which has created and funded high-profile biotechs such as Moderna Therapeutics Inc. and Editas Medicine.

Flagship’s founder and chief executive, Noubar Afeyan, said his aim is to help the venture firm’s companies make smart drug development decisions and expose its young entrepreneurs to the ideas and network of a senior executive from Big Pharma and academic medicine.

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“Our focus is a lot more about innovation and company creation than about investment,” Afeyan said, noting that Flagship and the companies it started hold more than 200 patents and are currently conducting 44 clinical trials. “Our relation with these companies is founder and owner, and we find ourselves increasingly helping these companies with their strategy.”

Rosenblatt, 68, left Merck & Co., where he was chief medical officer, on June 30 and plans to start work at Flagship on Sept. 12. He is a former dean of the Tufts University School of Medicine and president of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who has helped found several biotech startups and sits on the board of Flagship-backed Rubius Therapeutics.

His chief job will be to help the more than three dozen companies backed by Flagship engage with patients, strike partnerships with biotechs and academic researchers, and move drug candidates through clinical trials. Rosenblatt said he sees his role partly as coach, helping leaders at Flagship companies navigate business deals at larger drug firms.

Having recently returned from a trip to Iceland, where he admired its geothermal activity, Rosenblatt said he views Flagship and the Kendall Square life sciences cluster more broadly as a biomedical “hot spot” generating a continuing stream of companies and scientific breakthroughs. Flagship alone tries to start about a half-dozen companies a year, he said.

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“I’m excited about getting real close to the center of innovation here,” he said. “If I can help them think about the questions — and I know what the issues are from sitting on the Big Pharma side of the table — I can help make these conversations more productive.”

Rosenblatt, who has taught at Harvard Medical School, has spent much of his career at large institutions such as Merck, Tufts, and Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess. But he has also helped to launch startups, including MyoGenics, which developed the cancer drug Velcade that was sold to Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc., and Radius Health Inc., a Waltham company seeking US approval for an osteoporosis drug.

While winning Food and Drug Administration approval “used to be the final hurdle,” Rosenblatt said, he will encourage Flagship companies to think just as hard about how their medicines can provide value to patients and the health insurers that pay for them.

“I’m a great believer in medical research,” he said. “There’s a huge pressure on pricing. The cost of drugs and of medical care are a burden to the United States and the rest of the world. On the other hand, if we lose the oxygen that’s needed for innovation, that will be an even bigger price to pay. There’s kind of a push-pull here, and we’re going to have to find the equilibrium.”

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Afeyan said he expects Rosenblatt to spend the bulk of his time with the entrepreneurs who lead Flagship’s companies.

“There’s going to be a big competition among the portfolio companies for Mike’s attention,” he predicted.


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.