After an illustrious career in oncology R&D, contributing greatly to the development of cutting-edge cancer therapies at Novartis and Gilead, Alessandro Riva, MD joined biotech Ichnos Sciences as its founding CEO in 2019. In a recent conversation with PharmaBoardroom, Riva explained why he took on this unique new opportunity at a spinoff from Indian generics giant Glenmark and the challenges of transitioning from Big Pharma into the biotech world.


An oncologist by training, Riva started out at the University Hospital of Milan, one of Italy’s most important bone marrow transplantation units. While at the hospital, Riva was also – on behalf of Farmitalia Carlo Erba – testing a compound for acute myeloid leukaemia in patients. Farmitalia, later acquired by Pharmacia, in turn acquired by Pfizer, offered him a position, setting the course for a storied career in pharma R&D.


Riva explains, “this was a turning point in my life. I decided to take this opportunity based on my belief that by joining the pharmaceutical industry I would be able to contribute more broadly to the oncology community and touch more patients indirectly through the work of my teams and I.”


Reflecting back on his pharma industry career, including an extended period as global oncology development head for Novartis at a time when several ground-breaking treatments were being developed, Riva modestly admits that he has been “lucky to be in the right company with the right team at the right moment.” He adds “We were able to contribute significantly to moving the needle for cancer patients through the development of compounds in chemotherapy, small molecules, biologics, and cell therapies and are extremely proud to have brought key innovations to patients that are still being used to fight against their disease.”


The move to head up Ichnos Sciences in 2019 came about serendipitously for Riva, who retells how “Two years ago, by chance I was contacted by a recruiter looking to fill a board position at a new company being spun off from Glenmark’s business innovation division. I asked the recruiter who the new CEO was, and he told me that they did not have one. I put myself forward, was interviewed for the position, and the rest is history!”


Riva adds, “Joining Ichnos as CEO represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect all the dots in my career from both a scientific and business perspective. This role has given me the chance to design a new, modern company that follows the pace of innovation, has a culture of inclusiveness and diversity, and is driven by science.”


This science is largely focused around bispecific antibody therapies, of which Ichnos has three in its cancer pipeline. Although, as Amirah Al Idrus writing in Fierce Biotech notes, bispecific antibodies “could undercut CAR-T therapies by delivering comparable efficacy without the toxicity, logistical complications and associated costs,” Riva was keen to underline that the two approaches are complementary. “We are not competing with cell therapy – that is not what this is about – but rather we are creating additional value for patients,” he asserts. “This is because we want to make sure that all patients that need therapy can access it. We are convinced that both approaches can move the needle for patients, both as a mono-approach as well as a sequential approach.”


The organisation had the pace of a generic company and was largely opportunistic, reacting to what was happening in the innovation world. Changing this to a long-term, innovation-focused biotech mindset has been challenging and has taken time but has been achieved

Alessandro Riva, Ichnos Sciences


Moving from Big Pharma, with all its associated resources, to a smaller organisation with such a strong link to Indian generics, has not come without its challenges for Riva. He points out that “The big opportunity was to transform the business innovation unit that Glenmark put together many years ago into a functional global oncology-focused biotechnology company.”


He continues, “This process has involved transforming the organisation itself, our people, and – most importantly – our mindset. As essentially a spinoff from Glenmark, the organisation had the pace of a generic company and was largely opportunistic, reacting to what was happening in the innovation world. Changing this to a long-term, innovation-focused biotech mindset has been challenging and has taken time but has been achieved. We have made this journey step by step, in full alignment with our parent company, but by operating independently.”


Riva adds, “Another challenge was setting up the right priorities from a scientific, strategic, operational, process, and people perspective. That also took time, especially given the fact that almost all our employees were new.”


With Ichnos still a subsidiary of, and fully funded by, Glenmark, its journey to becoming a fully-fledged independent innovative biotech company is still ongoing. However, with a wealth of Big Pharma experience in its management team and a pipeline of assets that Riva feels are highly differentiated yet complementary to existing oncology treatments, this uniquely modelled company could yet break away from its generics legacy and forge its own success story.


To read the entire interview with Alessandro Riva, including a detailed overview of how Ichnos’s oncology approach differs from that of its competitors, its future commercialisation strategy, access and affordability issues, and the significance of Switzerland to the company, click here.