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Burks Rolls Up Sleeves to Take Affinium to Discovery

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For someone who’s moved around most of his life, relocating is now “sort of a compulsion,” says Christian Burks, who recently left his post as chief informatics officer of South San Francisco’s Exelixis to become CSO at Affinium Pharmaceuticals, the former Integrative Proteomics, in Toronto.

At Affinium, Burks, 48, will oversee the technology departments and help the company shift from its history of building proteomics tools to using them for its own drug discovery. He believes his experience at Exelixis — watching the company grow “from 25 people when I joined to well over 500 when I left” as well as being there for the company’s IPO and its M&A activity — will be crucial for the transition. “A very important part of any company wanting to go down that same path is having people on board [who did it already],” he says.

Though his Exelixis experience may be what made him valuable to Affinium, Burks spent most of his career in the public sector working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He went there as a postdoc in 1982, intrigued by “the very entrepreneurial opportunity of starting up a DNA sequence database.” He was part of the team that created GenBank and later headed up the database, eventually leading a group that covered molecular biology, mathematical modeling, protein structure prediction, and pattern analysis.

Burks, a fan of the “roll up your sleeves and do it” approach, decided there would be more opportunities for that in the private sector and left for Exelixis in 1996. It “was the lead company out the door on the functional genomics landscape,” he says.

Now, his challenge is tying together Affinium’s various technologies — x-ray crystallography, NMR, and protein purification and screening techniques — into a package that will produce meaningful data. “The real challenge, and the real payoff,” he says, “is integrating those.”

— Meredith Salisbury

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