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Poised for Partnerships, Exelixis Brings in James


With Steven James at the helm, expect to see more partnership deals for Exelixis, a South San Francisco company that’s parlaying its genomics platform into drug discovery success.

James, the new senior vice president for commercial operations, says the company’s management record is what impressed him enough to join. “The company has consistently done what it said it was going to do,” he says. “That’s not necessarily the norm in biotech.” And from his standpoint, that’s a crucial part of his work. “I have to be able to look potential partners and customers in the eye and say we can deliver what we promise. Credibility is everything.”

James, 45, comes from Sunesis Pharmaceuticals, a private small-molecule company where he was chief business officer. During his four years there, he helped turn the 20-person staff into a group of 120, raised some $90 million, and formed collaborations with Merck, Johnson & Johnson, and Biogen. His goals for Exelixis are similar: more pharma alliances, more revenue, and more products in the pipeline.

With that background, he already knows that dealing with pharma may not be the most pleasant experience. “One of the most guarded secrets in big pharma companies is which targets they’re working on,” he says — a potential stumbling block for genomics companies trying to get in the door and help with research.

But the way Exelixis does things, James says, the company doesn’t necessarily need to know which targets are underway: its scientists have plenty of their own novel targets (particularly in cancer) and even compounds to offer. In fact, Exelixis expects to have four products in clinical trials by next year. “Our lead product is not quite yet in phase III,” James says. The strength of that pipeline was one of the deciding factors for him taking the job. “To go from [a genomics company] to having two products in the clinic and two more about to go into the clinic is a pretty significant accomplishment.”

— Meredith Salisbury


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