Diagnostics, Startups

Grail’s high profile CEO steps down after 18-month tenure

Illumina spin-out Grail revealed Wednesday that Jeff Huber is stepping down as CEO of the billion-dollar early cancer detection startup.

Illumina spin-out Grail revealed Wednesday that its founding CEO Jeff Huber is stepping down, 18 months into his tenure at the billion-dollar early cancer detection startup.

Long-standing biotech veteran William (Bill) Rastetter will assume the top job; Huber will stay on as vice chairman of the board. The company also announced Ken Drazan’s promotion to president, helping to fortify the new executive team.

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In a statement, Grail said the leadership change is designed to “support the company’s next phase of growth as it moves towards commercialization of early detection products.”

Whatever the rationale, Huber’s abrupt departure is far from ideal. Grail is losing a key Big Data mind and a symbolic leader.

He also steered the unicorn startup through the largest-ever private biotech financing round in early 2017, securing funding from ARCH Venture Partners, Amazon, Bezos Expeditions, Bill Gates, and more. The money is earmarked for a series of massive longitudinal studies – of which just a handful have begun.

While he may lack a Ph.D., Huber brought highly relevant experience to the trials and their analysis, via two impressive decades spent in tech.

Before joining Grail in February 2016, he led programs at eBay, Excite@Home, and Google. At the latter, he oversaw the development of Google’s advertising products, Google Apps, Google Maps, and Google Earth. In recent years, he applied his Big Data and informatics skills to life science projects, working within Google X. 

The stars began to align in 2014 when Huber took a seat on Illumina’s board. He served until 2016, as Grail began to take shape.

Rastetter, meanwhile, has been an omnipotent biotech force. He is chairman for Neurocrine Biosciences and Fate Therapeutics, a board member for Regulus, Caltech and Daré, and an advisor to Leerink Partners and Illumina Ventures. He was a founder and chairman of Receptos, which sold to Celgene in 2015, and co-developed the incredibly successful cancer and autoimmune drug Rituxan while working at Biogen.

He clearly has ample experience for the role, but the story of Grail — intertwined with Huber — will take a hit.

In 2014, Huber’s wife Laura was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, There were few warning signs and no risk factors, he told the audience during a presentation at the Future of Genomic Medicine conference in March 2017. She was 46, healthy, and did not have a family history of the disease.

After 18 months of intense treatment, Laura passed away. One month later, he was approached about the top job at Grail.

“I’m very confident that if Grail had existed three or four years earlier that Laura could have had a very different outcome,” Huber shared.

Photo: BusinessWire