Why Bernard Coulie left Belgium for the US

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Bernard Coulie studied medicine, worked for Johnson & Johnson, obtained an MBA, and co-founded ActoGeniX, which was later acquired by Intrexon. Coulie now works as CEO of Pliant Therapeutics, for which he had to move to the US —where the big money is available. Isn’t this quite the career?! We spoke with Coulie about his life, his new company, and the hurdles of Belgian biotech. 

Some background on Coulie’s life

Bernard Coulie earned an MD at Leuven University in 1991 and a PhD in Medical Sciences, also from Leuven, in 1996. He graduated as a specialist in internal medicine and gastroenterology in 1997. He started his career at the Mayo Clinic (Minnesota), which allowed him to pursue a combination track of seeing patients and performing research. Coulie says: “I envisioned building a career and a lab over there, but Johnson & Johnson made me a job offer I couldn’t refuse, so I moved back to Belgium to work at Janssen Pharmaceutica in Beerse on products for GI diseases.” With support from J&J, Coulie obtained an MBA at Vlerick Business School; he finished those studies in 2005 and was promoted to head of internal medicine R&D in Europe. One year later, he had the opportunity to cofound a new biotech company called ActoGeniX together with Mark Vaeck (CEO), Emil Pot, and Lothar Steidler. Coulie started as head of research. When Vaeck left in 2010, Coulie became CEO. ActoGeniX had success in the clinic and was eventually sold to Intrexon in early 2015. “At that point, it was time for me to look for a new adventure,” continues Coulie. “I screened numerous opportunities in Europe, but none of them was exactly what I wanted. I came in contact with the Third Rock Ventures group in Boston at the moment when a new company, focused on tackling fibrosis, was being established. This immediately grasped my interest.”

This was a lifelong dream for me. I had to find my way to realize it, but it was the most important thing to do for me.

“It took some convincing from my side to prove that I was a perfect candidate for this company, as there are many qualified people in California. However, once my visa got approved, there was nothing to hold me back from helping to found Pliant Therapeutics. Having just sold ActoGeniX, the timing was ideal, and I was lucky that my wife had the same feeling about it, so we moved to the US.” Coulie was appointed CEO. “This was a lifelong dream for me. I had to find my way to realize it, but it was the most important thing to do for me.”

Pliant Therapeutics, a (soon-to-be) world leader in fibrosis treatment

Pliant Therapeutics uses technology developed at The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to tackle fibrosis of different organs such as the lung, the liver, the kidney, the heart, the gastrointestinal tract, and the skin. The fibrosis process is very similar across these different organs. In all of them, TGF-beta plays a central role. Coulie explains: “Our products are based on upstream inhibition of the activation of TGF-beta and downstream inhibition of the effect of TGF-beta, once it hits its receptor. The uniqueness of our approach is that we try to do this by being very selective in terms of the site of inhibition of TGF-beta. You don’t want to block TGF-beta in general, because it is a very important factor in a normal situation. It has anti-inflammatory properties, it has an effect on cell growth, and it drives tissue repair. However, when TGF-beta goes out of control, you go from normal repair to exaggerated fibrotic structures, resulting in fibrosis.

If you want to treat fibrosis, you have to cut off the abnormal TGF-beta activity, but only at the affected tissue and without altering its normal effect.

“Our lead product, which we licensed from UCSF, is about two years from the clinic. We got 45 million dollars in a series A investment round. This allows us to do clinical trials on our own; we don’t need a partner for this. We have been approached by a couple of companies, and we do evaluate possible partnerships, but not from a financial point of view. If a partnership can provide additional expertise, introduce a product that fits our portfolio, or help us move forward faster, then it is interesting for us.”

Is the grass really greener on the other side?

“In order to create a biotech company, you need three components: capital, human capital, and technology. Human capital and technology are definitely present in Belgium, but in my opinion, the cash that is needed to start a company right away is not sufficiently available. That’s the problem.

Too many companies start out underfunded. Of course there is risk, of course there is failure in terms of products, but so what?

“If you’re only funded for the very first steps, and they go wrong, you are already in trouble. That’s the issue. Companies don’t get enough of a chance to be successful because there’s no financial room to try different things. There’s just much more money available in the US, because there is structured capital in the form of many big VCs.”

“I am happy that we have enough money at Pliant to go to the clinical trials independently, with more funding rounds coming up. I would love to make this company successful by having a continuous product pipeline and a powerful product engine, and by bringing these products to the clinic and making sure that they work in patients. Fibrosis is often a deadly disease. When you are diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, you have between 2.5 and 5 years to live. You can have a lung transplant, but only 50% of the patients survive this procedure. As a medical doctor, I want those patients to finally get effective treatment.”