Biopower Player: Arie Belldegrun

Biopower Player: Arie Belldegrun

When biotech entrepreneur Keith Leonard took the stage as the keynote speaker at a recent conference celebrating successes along the 101 Biotech Corridor in western L.A. County and eastern Ventura County, he made an unexpected tribute.

He acknowledged his role in co-founding a company – Kythera Biopharmaceuticals – that was the first 101 Biotech Corridor company with a successful exit, selling to Allergan in 2015 for $2.1 billion. And then he noted that something similar had taken place around the same time on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains – except on a much larger scale.

Leonard pointed to the successful startups – and exits – of three biotech companies that had made Santa Monica and West Los Angeles their home: Agensys, Cougar Biotechnology and Kite Pharma. These three companies – all focused on using the body’s own immune system defenses to ward off cancer – sold for a collective $13.4 billion over the span of 10 years, from 2007 to 2017. And then Leonard said this:

“Those three companies have one thing in common: An amazing entrepreneur and life force named Arie Belldegrun.”

Building biotech community

That trio of startup exits might have been enough for most biotech entrepreneurs. Indeed, for one friend and colleague of Belldegrun’s, Eric Esrailian, health sciences clinical professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, it would be enough to qualify his friend for the “Mount Rushmore of biotech entrepreneurs in L.A.”

But for Belldegrun, an Israeli-born urologist and immunology researcher who first came to teach and conduct research at UCLA 35 years ago, they were just the warmup act for the much larger mission he has now set himself on: Building the infrastructure for a successful biotech sector, both nationally and especially in Los Angeles County.

Belldegrun has used his share of the proceeds from those biotech company sales to set up a home office in Century City called Bellco Capital, which has emerged as the center of a biotech funding and real estate empire. Belldegrun has become a major partner in one biotech private equity fund – Two River Group Holdings – and created another life sciences-oriented venture capital fund called Vida Ventures. And five years ago, he created Breakthrough Properties, a joint venture with New York real estate giant Tishman Speyer that invests in and creates biotech research parks across the nation and in Europe.

On top of all this, Belldegrun has emerged as one of the main driving forces behind the recently announced California Institute for Immunology and Immunotherapy, one of two institutes planned for a massive UCLA-run research park at the former Westside Pavilion shopping center in Westwood.

That center, when completed, holds the promise of completely transforming the Los Angeles biotech scene and moving the region into the top ranks of biotech hubs, rivaling the Bay Area, San Diego and Boston.

“It’s a major reason why L.A. bioscience is about to change in a big way,” said Dan Gober, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of Biocom, a statewide industry trade and advocacy group.

The Eli Broad effect

Belldegrun said he has been pushing for an immunology research center in Los Angeles for more than a decade, ever since the late billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad opted to locate a bioscience research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That Broad Institute has been credited, among other things, for advancing the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR.

“About a decade ago, I asked Eli (Broad) why he chose not to put that institute here in Los Angeles,” Belldegrun said. “He responded, ‘Where are you going to build a biotech center in Los Angeles? In Boston, there’s an obvious place: right between Harvard and MIT.’”

From that moment on, Belldegrun said, “I decided it was time to build a Broad Center for the West.”

Broad thought such a center should be located near USC and downtown, but Belldegrun thought it would fare better on L.A.’s Westside, with UCLA as its focus.

And Belldegrun laid out the mission for this center.

“Essentially, it would be a ‘one-stop shop’ for immunology and immunotherapy research, technology development and applications,” he said.

Elaborating on the research function, he said it would be “a place for scientific research that cuts across all disciplines – all focused on immunotherapy.”

Multiyear effort behind Immunology Institute

A key differentiator for this center, Belldegrun said, would be that it – not UCLA or the University of California system – would hold the patents for the technology developed there. Eventually, he said, the center would become self-sustaining through the sale of companies that participated in the center’s incubator/accelerator programs.

Belldegrun said this concept took shape as he met with other prominent people in L.A.’s life sciences and immunology community, as well as philanthropists, including billionaire medical device developer and philanthropist Gary Michelson, billionaire and cancer survivor Michael Milken, UCLA colleague and health sciences clinical professor of medicine Esrailian, food waste recycling magnate-turned philanthropist Meyer Luskin (a big donor to UCLA) and tech billionaire-turned philanthropist Sean Parker.

Together, these six formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit around 2018 to set about turning this vision of an immunology institute involving UCLA into a reality. Michelson was named board chair, Esrailian president and Belldegrun a co-founder.

“You rarely hear about a group of philanthropists with special skills each bringing something to the table,” Michelson said. “Nobody cared about whose name goes on the building, just getting the center built.”

These six cumulatively committed several hundred million dollars toward the effort and plan to raise another $1 billion.

Initially, the intent was to build the center from the ground up at a site near Westwood Boulevard and Le Conte Avenue at the south entrance to the UCLA campus. That site had the advantage of being close to the world-class medical facilities on campus, including the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and the existing immunology research programs on the campus.

The nonprofit worked closely with John Mazziotta, UCLA’s vice chancellor for health sciences and the chief executive of UCLA Health, to push the immunology institute forward.

But Belldegrun said that the site focus changed abruptly when word surfaced during the Covid pandemic that Google, a subsidiary of Mountain View-based Alphabet, was abandoning plans to take up sole tenancy at the shuttered 700,000-square-foot Westside Pavilion shopping mall, co-owned by Brentwood-based Hudson Pacific Properties and Santa Monica-based Macerich Co.

“With the work that Google had already done at the Westside Pavilion, we realized that would save us three to five years that would have had to go toward building the institute campus from the ground up,” Belldegrun said.

The next step was to secure state funding. To achieve this, Belldegrun said, the decision was made to expand the center beyond the jurisdiction of UCLA and make it statewide.

“It took us time – five, almost six, years – to get the state funding, including several meetings with (Gov. Gavin) Newsom’s office,” he said.

The $500 million in state funding came through starting in the 2022-23 budget cycle and continuing over the next two years.

That funding is going toward the creation of two research institutes at the former Westside Pavilion: the immunology center and the UCLA Center for Quantum Science and Engineering.

In January came the formal announcement by Newsom of the state funding, which went toward UCLA’s $700 million purchase of the former Westside Pavilion from Hudson Pacific and Macerich and the plans to set up the two research institutes.

Michelson said the first group of the immunology institute’s scientists could move into about 100,000 square feet of the former Westside Pavilion space by the end of next year, with full buildout coming several years later.

Spawning new companies

A crucial part of the institute will be its ability to host immunology company startups that take research developments and turn them into market applications.

“I want to spawn out a hundred new companies from this institute, and Arie (Belldegrun) really gets that and knows how to do that,” Michelson said.

Indeed, spawning new companies has been a cornerstone of Belldegrun’s career over the last three decades.

Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, just one year after the nation’s founding, Belldegrun received his medical degree from Hadassah Medical Center at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1974 and went on to study immunology at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, completing his studies in 1979.

Belldegrun then came to the United States, completing his residency in urological studies at Harvard Medical School in 1985. After spending a few years in immunology and oncology research at the National Cancer Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health), he came to UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1989.

“At the Jonsson center, I was tasked with building a clinical research program, to build an expertise in immunology second to none,” Belldegrun said.

He has been with UCLA ever since and is currently the director of UCLA Health’s Institute of Urologic Oncology and a professor in the urology program.

But Belldegrun said he always wanted to do more than just be a top researcher.

“My goal was – and continues to be – to translate basic science to products that can change people’s lives,” he said.

One of the chief reasons why he said he stayed at UCLA was that the university supported his entrepreneurial passion.

In 1996, in collaboration with UCLA, Belldegrun launched Agensys, which developed monoclonal antibodies to treat solid tumors of several types of cancer.

Even at that early stage, Belldegrun had a larger goal in mind.

“Agensys was my first attempt to create a hub of big pharma in Santa Monica/UCLA area,” he said.

In 2007, Belldegrun sold Agensys to Tokyo-based Astellas Pharma for $537 million ($387 million upfront and another $150 million in milestone payments).

By that time, Belldegrun had helped found, and then joined the board as vice chair, of Cougar Biotechnology, a company founded primarily by Alan Auerbach that was developing an antibody drug conjugate that combined a monoclonal antibody with a drug.

Cougar sold in 2009 to New Brunswick, New Jersey-based pharma giant Johnson & Johnson for nearly $1 billion.

Then came Belldegrun’s most spectacular financial success. In 2009, he founded Kite Pharma in Santa Monica to develop a cell therapy-based immunotherapy technology to treat cancers. Cell therapy is the creation of healthy cells to replace or repair damaged cells or tissues. In Kite’s case, this involved transplanting T-cells.

Kite Pharma went public in 2014 and then sold to Foster City-based Gilead Sciences three years later for $11.9 billion. Gilead has kept the Kite name and the facility remains in Santa Monica.

“All of this was done from Los Angeles,” Belldegrun said – his way of showing that this region can support a biotech hub.

Building a bioscience ecosystem

The Kite Pharma sale proved transformative for Belldegrun. He used the proceeds to launch a family office called Bellco Capital in Century City, as well as buying a stake in Two River and launching Vida Ventures (which now has $2 billion under management).

Belldegrun said his goal for all these funds and companies was to create a biotech ecosystem in Los Angeles.

Yet for one of his ventures – Breakthrough Properties – that goal remains elusive. Breakthrough Properties specializes in building or converting business parks for life sciences companies; these properties include amenities for these biotech companies, especially wet lab space.

Belldegrun said Breakthrough Properties has so far deployed about $3 billion in real estate assets – about 5.5 million square feet of space – in the United States and Europe. That includes five projects in the San Diego area.

But so far, none of those projects has been in Los Angeles County.

“We’ve definitely looked at L.A., but as I’ve stated before, no single site is the obvious choice,” Belldegrun said. “We’re hoping that with the Immunology Institute, that will be an area where Breakthrough can focus.”

While his focus has broadened of late, Belldegrun has still been launching biotech companies – though not in Los Angeles. In 2017, the same year he sold Kite to Gilead, Belldegrun founded Allogene Therapeutics to continue with cell therapy technology. That company, which went public in 2018, is now headquartered in South San Francisco.

Shortly after that, Belldegrun helped found Neogene Therapeutics, an Amsterdam-based company that was also working with engineered T-cell immunotherapy technology. Neogene sold early last year to Cambridge, United Kingdom-based pharma giant AstraZeneca for $200 million upfront and another $150 million in future milestone payments.

With Belldegrun continuing to spawn biotech companies, funding and providing the physical infrastructure for those companies and becoming a driving force behind the immunology institute, Biocom’s Gober said the entrepreneur has had an outsized influence on L.A.’s biotech scene.

“It’s hard to think of anybody else who stands at the top of the life science community in all its aspects: Taking the science and the problems, coming up with solutions, turning them into commercial successes and changing people’s lives, and then building ecosystems to enable other companies to do the very same thing,” Gober said.

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