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Immunocore’s Bahija Jallal: ‘There was fantastic science, but without financing, we could not go anywhere’

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Bahija Jallal spent her first day as chief executive of Immunocore on the other side of the world from its Oxford headquarters, trying to raise money to keep the biotech afloat. In January 2019, the AstraZeneca veteran headed straight to the JPMorgan conference in San Francisco to convince investors she could reinvigorate the company.

It was a tough sell: Immunocore had, in many shapes and forms, been trying to develop a cancer drug for 12 years. The company had raised a huge initial series A funding round of $320mn and then disappointed investors with the drug’s slow progress.

“I think the company had gone two years into the market and could not raise the money. Most of the executive team had left and they were without a CEO, or at least with an interim CEO, for two years,” she says. “I knew there was this fantastic science and this fantastic platform, but without the financing, we could not go anywhere.”

Jallal is animated as she narrates, safe in the knowledge that she and Immunocore have overcome this inauspicious start. The company has secured its first approval — of an innovative cancer drug — and is developing many more treatments. It has gone public and, she hopes, will be a success story that shows the UK’s life sciences potential.

Back in 2019, one investor told her that it could not be done. She recounts him saying: “I don’t believe that anyone can turn around the company. I have so many CEOs come and tell me they’re going to turn around [companies] and that never happens.” But recently, he admitted to Jallal that he was wrong.

Jallal grew up in Morocco and lost her father at an early age. Her mother brought up her and her six siblings alone, encouraging them to become the first women in the family to go to university. Jallal started her career as a scientist, doing her PhD in physiology at what was then the Université de Paris VI and conducting post-doctorate research in molecular biology and oncology at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Germany. She then moved to the US to climb the ranks of research in biotechs until she joined MedImmune, a leader in antibody technology, eventually becoming executive vice-president. After it was acquired by AstraZeneca in 2007, she became president of MedImmune and executive vice-president of its Anglo-Swedish owner. When she was approached about taking the top job at Immunocore, she had not been looking for a chief executive position — but she had wanted a challenge.

She spent six months considering whether Immunocore was that challenge — or just a mess. By interviewing people across the company, she discovered that clinical trial investigators — the doctors who lead studies in hospitals — were exasperated because the drug worked, but was nowhere near the market.

“They were really frustrated because nothing had happened. But they tell you: ‘I have patients that should not be alive today. They’re still alive.’ That tells you something,” she says.

Treatment for cancer has been transformed in the past decade by drugs harnessing the power of the immune system to tackle tumours. Immunocore’s technology fills an important gap in the new generation of treatments, using T-cells, the key white blood cells of the immune system, to take on solid tumours. The drug — called a T-cell receptor bispecific — latches on twice, once to the tumour cell, and on the other side, to the T-cell. Crucial to the scientific challenge was making them soluble, so it could be used as an off-the-shelf product, rather than engineering a treatment from a patient’s own cells.

Jallal says T-cells are “pretty powerful”. “Basically you think about them as little soldiers in the body that kill anything foreign. That’s what protects us,” she says. “I absolutely believe that all we have to do is look at our body and our system. We’re not smart enough. We have to learn from what our body’s doing.” 

Immunocore’s first use of this technology was in Kimmtrak, a drug for metastatic uveal melanoma, a rare cancer that starts in the eye. But the company hopes the platform can be adapted for other cancers and infectious diseases.

Sir John Bell, the Immunocore chair, sealed the deal by showing Jallal a picture of a cancer patient, who had no other options but this drug. “There was one image that really convinced me to come here: seeing a patient having a metastasis to the liver and responding to the drug,” she says. She thought: “This is really different and it’s going to make an impact.” 

It took Jallal more than a year to raise the series B funding, closing a $130mn round in March 2020. Investors were reluctant to commit more money without more clinical data, so she also had to redesign its flagship trial, expanding it and changing when the data would be reported to ensure it was robust enough for an approval.

Meanwhile, she set about restructuring the company, doing “deep dives” in every department, looking for where it was “bloated”, and what to fix. She also hired five or six key people she had worked with previously, which later grew to about 20.

Still based in the US, Jallal would visit Immunocore’s headquarters in a science park outside Oxford about once a month. While it is unusual to lead a company from another continent, Jallal saw there were advantages, such as being closer to the deep pool of biotech investors in the US. 

But then the pandemic hit, and she was left to tackle culture change over Zoom. “It was really challenging because the restructuring is the easy part,” she says. To try to change the culture for those who remain, she held virtual town halls and staff forums, but she admits there was nothing like being there.

Even more existential was the decision about what to do with the clinical trial as Covid-19 swept through hospitals, putting many studies on hold. Many others in the industry stopped to think — and then found it hard to restart the trials. Within 24 hours, Immunocore committed to continuing no matter what. “This would have been life or death for the company,” she says.

To do so, they had to switch to telehealth fast, with no time to wait for guidance from the regulator. Immunocore had to rapidly come up with plans for every scenario, such as identifying which data was absolutely essential for time-pressed staff to enter, and what to do if a patient developed Covid. In June 2020, the trial ended up finishing enrolling patients on time.

By November of that year, after the pandemic had made the road even rockier than Jallal had initially imagined, the company reported interim data that showed the drug extended patient’s lives. The data was earlier than expected, showing a strong benefit.

The results also transformed the company’s fortunes, as investors came flooding back. Immunocore raised $75mn. “Raising the series B took me a year. It took two weeks to raise the C,” she says.

But Jallal knew that if Immunocore was to commercialise this drug on its own, without a large pharmaceutical partner, it would need even more money. So just months later, in February last year, she decided to take the company public on the Nasdaq, doing the investor roadshow from her basement. The timing was good: it raised more than expected, about $312mn in a combined initial public offering and private financing. Later that year, a biotech sell-off would start, effectively closing the IPO window.

“Thank goodness we did,” she says. So far this year, Immunocore has bucked the biotech trend, with shares soaring almost 69 per cent. In July this year, it also raised $140mn in a private investment in a public equity transaction.

Three questions for Bahija Jallal

Who is your leadership hero?

My mother will always be my first hero. Aside from her, I’d have to say Nelson Mandela, a powerful but humble leader.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

You are only as good as your team.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a chief executive?

I’d definitely be giving back in some way — possibly leading a non-profit focused on helping young people, especially girls, discover and develop a love of math and science to ultimately benefit humanity.

Jallal hopes Immunocore will also break another convention, or curse, that hangs over British-born biotech, which frequently sells to Big Pharma rather than growing into large independent companies. She believes the key is to have the “best of both worlds”: combining the “superb” UK science with capital and company-building experience in the US. Even before she arrived, Immunocore had a US office, and it now has two employing 70 people across research and development, commercial and corporate departments.

“If you want to go on to Nasdaq, for instance, you have to have some presence in the US . . . because out of sight is out of mind with US investors,” she explains.

She believes the bench of talent in a place like Boston would mean that a start-up such as Immunocore would not have had governance problems, like board members without biotech experience.

Three and a half years after she arrived, Jallal is now shepherding new potential drugs through trials. Immunocore plans to present early-stage data on a candidate for treating a range of cancers, including of the lung, breast and ovaries, in September next year. It recently dosed the first patient in its HIV treatment trial, aiming to rid patients of the persistent reservoir of the virus, which is part of a collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Then, the company will look at using its technology to tackle autoimmune diseases.

“We are pioneers in this area. But the key is to stay ahead,” Jallal says. “We can’t just rest now and feel like we have arrived.” 

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