Fierce JPM Week: Aditum founder Jimenez, already focused on drug-device combos, sees pandemic amping up digital health

Joe Jimenez, best known in biopharma as the ex-CEO of Novartis, has spent the last year-plus starting up something entirely different: a biotech investment firm focused on drug candidates that have been left behind.

The idea is that Aditum Bio will in-license drug candidates, form new companies around them and finance their trips through first-in-human trials. And so far, the firm has launched a $135 million fund, looked at more than 1,000 prospects and announced three new companies, with a fourth waiting in the wings, Jimenez said in a Fierce JPM Week interview.

That’s all according to plan. What wasn’t according to plan, of course, was the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Aditum to work entirely differently—in what’s turned out to be a good way.

COVID-19 has “led to virtual operations like never before,” Jimenez said. “We’ve got four newcos up and running, and some of our people have never met each other.

“This is a very different way of doing business, but I also think it’s going to continue because the efficiencies we get by remote communication is leading to acceleration of clinical trials and acceleration of planning for clinical trials,” he said.

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Aditum’s first fund was intended to finance five to six in-licenses, and the firm started out expecting—or perhaps hoping—to raise a second, and then a third. With four newcos already in process, Jimenez figures late 2021 will bring that second round. During this week’s annual J.P. Morgan healthcare conference, he’ll be meeting with companies with assets Aditum is targeting, hoping to persuade them to look at “the Aditum model.”

The way Jimenez sees it, the pandemic is changing the way people work permanently, building a foundation for a “new normal” that allows for remote operations, a workforce spread beyond pricey biotech hubs like Boston and San Francisco, and industry conferences that, likely beginning next year, will combine the in-person and the virtual.

That hybrid model is, in a way, like the model therapeutic project Aditum is seeking. While at Novartis, Jimenez championed the idea of beyond-the-pill treatment approaches, and, now, the new firm aims to spend its money on digital-drug combos that can work better together.

Biotech and pharma are increasingly focused on complex treatments such as cell and gene therapies, Jimenez said, “leaving open disease areas where behavior modification on top of therapeutics may lead to better outcomes than a therapeutic alone.”

RELATED: Life after Novartis: Jimenez joins board of Bayer-backed cell therapy startup

For instance, one of Aditum’s companies is working on a therapy for substance abuse. “We are going to pair it with a digital device to help patients with behavior modification that should work synergistically with the drug,” he said.

The pandemic has created an opportune time for digital health care, too, Jimenez figures. COVID-19 has already forced a switch to telemedicine at a pace unimaginable in 2019, for instance; in the past year, some 46% of people have replaced in-person doctor visits with telehealth, he said.

“Despite the fact that COVID-19 is a tragedy for hundreds of thousands of people, it has created changes in the healthcare scene that are going to be seen for the next 10 years in terms of acceleration of digital applications,” Jimenez said.