Viela Bio’s Spinout Story Reveals A Roadmap for Growth Ahead
November 6, 2018
In order: Elizabeth Parsons (Member, Mintz Levin), Aaron Ren (Head of BD and Operations, Viela Bio), Christian Dinneen-Long (Senior Council, AstraZeneca), and Chris Jeffers (Member, Mintz Levin), participate in panel discussion at TEDCO’s Entrepreneur Expo on the Viela Bio Corporate Spinout Story
Viela Bio was featured this year at the TEDCO Entrepreneur Expo and Stem Cell Symposium as part of a special track on ‘Building Great Companies.’ Their panel discussion, titled ‘Corporate Spinouts: The Viela Bio Story,’ gave attendees a behind-the-scenes look at what went into the company’s launch from AstraZeneca. More importantly, it revealed a company that is on a mission to write its own story about bringing new treatments to market for patients impacted by autoimmune diseases.
The news of the Viela Bio deal in February 2018 has remained one of the biggest stories of the year in the BioHealth Capital region. With a venture investment of up to $250 million, led by 6 Dimensions Capital, Boyu Capital, and Hillhouse Capital, it also became one of the biggest biopharma spin-out of its kind. Aaron Ren, Ph.D., Viela Bio’s Head of Business Development and Operations, provided insights into the playbook that made this deal possible and what Viela Bio has done to build a fast-paced, mission-driven organization.
AstraZeneca, like many big biopharma companies, has adopted various externalization strategies which enable it to remain focused on its core therapeutic areas. In doing so, they found synergy among six promising autoimmune assets. After packaging those assets together in a way that created something compelling to both patients and investors, and assembling a team of highly accomplished executives (Aaron Ren being one of them) the foundation for Viela Bio was born.
When it came time to make the decision to join Viela Bio, Ren wasn’t concerned at all about leaving AstraZeneca. He believed in the mission, he believed in the assets, and he believed in the leadership of the new CEO, Bing Yao, Ph.D. “It was a great opportunity for me to follow an exceptional leader,” Ren said confidently. “Working on something with a big, clear social benefit, like developing drugs for patients in need, was also motivating.”
Before Viela Bio, Ren had somewhat of an unorthodox career path. In his early career, he held R&D leadership positions at some of the top name companies in the industry. From there he went on to take a role in the venture investment space at SR One (GSK’s venture capital arm) and then moved into management consulting at McKinsey & Co.’s Shanghai office before landing at MedImmune where he held various strategy and operations leadership roles. “I saw all of my experiences as building me up to start my entrepreneurial career,” reflected Ren. “Joining Viela Bio for me was a no-brainer.”
It took just twelve months from the development of the idea to the final launch of Viela Bio. A lot of planning and strategy went into being able to accomplish such a quick timeline. It also required a very collaborative approach built on a foundation of trust between all parties. “Holding high ethical standards and doing the right things is very important,” shared Ren, “and that’s something we believe wholeheartedly at Viela.”
Another early factor that moved the deal forward was that the team trusted in the quality of the assets because many of them had contributed to their development. Ren said that they were motivated to see those assets reach patients and they all thought that this business model was the most viable model to make it work.
Investors also trusted in the quality of the assets. An important reason for this was that AstraZeneca continued to invest in the programs while the spin-out decision was being made. That became an essential signal to investors that there was something of real value.
The founding Viela Bio executive team came with an impressive resume. They had achieved highly successful careers spanning many of the top biopharma companies. However, startups are drastically different than big corporations. The team had to convince investors that they could also do well in a startup where they would have to overcome a much different set of challenges.
The team has taken those challenges head-on as Ren was eager to share, “We’ve not only maintained the established timelines but have been able to accelerate them, which we are very happy about.” Viela Bio is a patient-focused company, so knowing that they may be able to bring their products to patients faster is something that drives the work.
“With our progress over the past eight months I think that we have proved to our investors that, yes, we have what it takes to be good entrepreneurs,” said Ren proudly. “We are all willing to do what it takes at a small company to get things done.”
Company culture is vital to the success of startup companies. Spin-outs can present their own unique challenge: Many of the first employees have emerged from the same established corporate culture that often doesn’t align with what is needed to succeed as a startup. “A startup culture is much different, so it was important for us to build a company culture on elements like transparency, trust, and mission,” shared Ren.
At Viela Bio they have really paid attention to the nitty-gritty details and have taken a systematic approach to their mission-driven culture. Ren shared a few things that Viela Bio has done in this area. The first is that every employee currently holds some equity. This model, used commonly by startups, helps the first employees feel ownership in the company. It helped Viela Bio establish a culture of excellence early on that employees want to uphold.
Secondly, they held an all-hands meeting about culture in the very early days of the company. During that meeting, they asked how each individual envisioned the company and what attributes would define the company they wanted to work for. “This early input came from our employee’s hearts and is what they truly believe,” shared Ren. “We talked, listened, and we aligned on what we all believe would be good attributes. Now everyone has more motivation to make it happen.”
The Portuguese word for road or alley is ‘viela.’ Its choice as the company name is meant to signify the often-shared pathways used to treat autoimmune diseases. Inside the walls of the company, it seems also to signify a new shared journey that this team of employees has embarked on together.
One of the challenges a new company faces after launching out of a parent company is that their needs as a startup are much different. Therefore, Viela Bio had to quickly build its own infrastructure that suited its unique needs. One way they have been able to accomplish this rapidly is by keeping their core functional expertise in-house and leveraging significant external resources for their supporting functions.
“One thing I’m happy to share is that we’ve learned that here in the BioHealth Capital Region we have a lot of great resources,” shared Ren. “We have engaged many small consulting companies and have had really solid support.” Ren said they have been so successful under this model that he lost track of how many independent consultants and contractors they have used to help build their infrastructure.
Since their launch, Viela Bio has achieved much of its growth by attracting employees from other top companies. “On day one of Viela Bio, we onboarded our first non-AstraZeneca / MedImmune employee,” shared Ren. “Now that we’re at 45 employees, we’ve already hired some great people from other states as well. We really want to help make the talent reservoir for the region much stronger.”
Ren is excited that they are building the company in the BioHealth Capital Region. He discussed the importance of a robust ecosystem and shared, “We believe that the region helps us to get stronger, and the stronger we get the more we will also help the region grow.”
On the foundation of a mission-driven culture, Viela Bio has delivered a rapidly advancing portfolio and built the foundation for a fully integrated biotechnology company that is poised to help millions of patients worldwide. The Viela Bio “Corporate Spin-Out story” is exciting, but it is the Viela Bio “Start-up growth story” that Ren and his colleagues are focusing on every day to make sure their mission is successful.
We will continue to follow Viela Bio’s progress and provide updates as they are available. For more on Viela Bio please visit their website; www.vielabio.com