Protagonist Therapeutics: A Hero's Journey in Motion at this Rising-Star Biotech

Dinesh V. Patel, PhD, President and CEO

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” His fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, had his own quip: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

Perhaps no arena compares to that of the biotechnology industry, where participating companies wrestle against the mysteries and vagaries of biology to bring forward new therapies to save, extend, or improve people’s lives. One man who has sailed skillfully and triumphed repeatedly is biotech maven Dinesh V. Patel, PhD.

With an extensive educational background and executive, entrepreneurial, and scientific experience spanning 33 years, Patel brings deep skill and understanding to his current role at President and CEO of Protagonist Therapeutics. A chemist by training, Patel launched his career at Squibb, a precursor to Bristol-Myers Squibb, where he rose quickly through the ranks to head up company’s important drug discovery projects. Later on, between stints at Affymax and Miikana, Patel co-founded Versicor, later known as Vicuron. It was there that Patel further honed his business and finance acumen, combining it with scientific expertise in ways that supercharged the company’s progress. In a rare feat for a young biotech—especially one focused on anti-fungals and anti-bacterials—Vicuron caught the eye of pharma giant Pfizer Inc. In 2008, Pfizer acquired Vicuron for $1.9 billion in cash.

Protagonist has extraordinary opportunities at hand. At this stage, execution, scaling, and repeating what we do best is everything

The gains from the Pfizer acquisition could have ushered Patel into the smooth seas of an early retirement. Instead, he eagerly returned to biotech. As he explains: “Having these skills—the ability to develop drugs that can save and improve people’s lives—I felt an obligation to keep applying them, to keep contributing to the fullest extent that I can.” Also, admittedly, his inclination to challenge and prove himself is at play. As Patel puts it, “Anybody can get lucky and be successful once, referring to the Vicuron outcome. The true test of resilience, skills, and destiny lies in repeat performance.”

When Patel took the helm at Protagonist Therapeutics as President and Chief Executive Officer, Protagonist had just a handful of research scientists as employees in Brisbane, Australia. At the time, the sole and central component of the company’s value proposition was its nascent drug discovery platform. In that platform, Patel saw immense potential. He established new headquarters for Protagonist in Silicon Valley, pulled in a team of world-class scientists and investors, and drove an ambitious expansion of the company’s pipeline. He took the company public in 2016, navigating around hurdles expected and unforeseen. Today, Protagonist has developed de novo a rich and diverse pipeline of potential drug candidates for a range of diseases, among them a rare blood cancer known as polycythemia vera, and also Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. In addition, Protagonist has established a successful partnership of over three years running with Janssen, the pharmaceutical companies of Johnson & Johnson.
This high-profile collaboration has provided Protagonist with significant financial resources and powerful external validation of its technology platform and drug candidates.

“In the early years in Australia, I had just $4 million annually to run the company,” Patel explains. “Gradually, we figured areas to build and grow, shifted to the US market, hired the best talent, built capabilities across orphan drug and blockbuster therapeutic categories, and substantially augmented the company’s valuation.” Today, Protagonist is a publicly traded US-based company with a market cap north of $2 billion. The opportunities the company has cultivated in its pipeline could translate to many billions of dollars in revenue in the future.

Facilitating the Tailwinds of Success

Among its latest achievements, Protagonist recently received clear signals of support from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency for further clinical development of rusfertide, the company’s lead drug candidate, which is scheduled for a registrational Phase 3 study by early next year. “Protagonist has extraordinary opportunities at hand,” says Patel. “At this stage, execution, scaling, and repeating what we do best is everything. As a team, we’ll continue to bring unwavering determination to the work in view and all that lies ahead, including full clinical development, registration, and commercial launch of our pipeline assets.”

Despite the staggering success under its hood, Protagonist believes in staying grounded and resilient, ever aware of the risks and challenges intrinsic to its industry. As Patel describes it, “Biotech is a highly uncertain journey that requires a different set of DNA to not just withstand but rather change failures into successes.” Whether rough or smooth waters lie ahead, he keeps his eye on the horizon and his feet in the arena.