A Southeast Life Sciences Q&A with AskBio Co-Founder and CEO Sheila Mikhail


“The field of gene therapy was in a nuclear winter in 2001,” said AskBio Co-Founder and CEO Sheila Mikhail. 


Motivated by belief in the science of gene therapy in order to give the blind a chance to see or give more children a chance to live full, healthy lives, AskBio used creative financing, grants and selective scientific technology sales (or exits) to keep its vision and work alive. It would be more than 15 years later that the company took on its first round of funding, $235 million.


In October 2020, Bayer acquired AskBio in a deal worth up to $4 billion including potential milestones. As reported by BioSpace, “Under terms of the deal, Bayer will own full rights to AskBio’s pipeline of treatments for Pompe disease, Parkinson’s disease, as well as therapies for neuromuscular, central nervous system, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.”


The AskBio team does a much better job telling their story and explaining their science than we ever could. We encourage you to read the pioneering story of Jude Samulski story as published on their website.


What we at Southeast Life Sciences want to share with this community are Sheila’s insights into what mature, late stage life science “startups” need to know when an IPO or exit to a large “strategic” like Bayer looks like it could be the next milestone in the company’s journey. 


Sheila graciously shared her insights with Paul Snyder, VP of Healthcare for Write2Market. We hope you find these insights in the Q&A below informative and useful.


Q: How long had potential acquirers been looking closely at AskBio?


A: “We had long standing connections with large life science companies through collaboration or colleagues. Pfizer’s acquisition of Bamboo Therapeutics was a significant moment for us, and for gene therapy’s maturation into a new pillar of medicine.”


Editor’s note: Bamboo is an AskBio spinout focused on gene therapies for four severe diseases: 


  • Giant axonal neuropathy, a disorder of neurofilaments, the structural framework that helps define the shape and size of nerve cells.
  • Friedreich’s ataxia, a progressive degeneration of nervous tissue in the spinal cord.
  • Canavan’s disease, a progressive deterioration of nerve cells in the brains of infants.
  • Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive degeneration of muscles.


“We realized in 2020 that we had to take more cash for the tools we needed to address the myriad varieties of complex diseases with the synergy of small molecules and gene therapy. Things heated up at JPMorgan 2020 because acquiring our technology and pipeline was almost certainly going to have a higher ROI before an IPO than after.”


Q: What can other innovators, including those that look like AskBio just prior to 2020, learn from your experience as Bayer closed in on acquisition?


A: “Investment bankers talk a lot about ‘optionality.’ It’s a key driver of transaction completion. You are more attractive with multiple options available like an IPO, multiple bidders, the ability to continue to go it alone if needed, or investors willing to put more money into the company.


“If you’re backed into a corner, desperately seeking an exit partner or seven-figure or greater investment, the transaction probably won’t happen. But if you do find yourself in a corner, learn how to bluff really well and never let them see you sweat.”


Q: What, if anything, do you wish you had known before?


A: “I wish I’d had a better idea of just how hard it would be. I kept thinking I might have been making a mistake, that I wasn’t experienced enough, that I wasn’t good or capable enough. But I believed in the technology’s life saving potential and had to give these transformative therapeutics a chance to make lives so much better.”


Q: What advice would you give aspiring women in life sciences, including students at almost any level or clinician innovators with ‘an idea?’


A: “Try to not spend time worrying about other people’s opinions. You will find yourself alone more often than you might like. Continue to advance your science, your therapies. Get them to the clinicians, watch the impact and keep your eyes on the objective. Be true to who you are and do the best you can by the science, by the patients, by the employees and by the science and technology.”


Southeast Life Sciences thanks Sheila for sharing her insights with us. We hope to see you at the 2021 edition of our flagship event, AdvanSE, October 27 – 29 in Charleston, SC.