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Taking your first CCO role, preparing for IPO and working with non-commercial functions with Abivax's Michael Ferguson

The Abivax Chief Commercial Officer talks to Joe Knight on the Venari Podcast about his first six months in role and preparing the company for IPO

These are exciting times at Abivax. Having launched what was then Europe’s largest biotech initial public offering (IPO) in 2015, the company, which is headquartered in France, has closed a second IPO stateside on the global Nasdaq market for its lead ulcerative colitis product, Obefazimod. With an offering price of $11.60 per share over 18,699,460 ordinary American Depositary Shares, along with 1,626,040 in the European Private Placement, the aggregate gross proceeds came to an impressive $235.8 million.


Michael Ferguson, who joined Abivax as Chief Commercial Officer in April 2023, told our Life Sciences Commercial Consultant, Joe Knight, all about the process during a recording of the Venari Podcast’s Chief Commercial Officer series. ‘We had a little bit of a reset for the organisation at the time of my joining,’ he recalls. ‘From a commercial perspective, the focus was prioritisation and focus’.


Developing the lead asset

Abivax’s background is in vaccines; prior to developing Obefazimod, the company had a vaccine for HIV therapy that was, as Michael says: ‘effective but not commercially viable.’ Through ‘serendipitous discovery’, they found that Obefazimod worked well on inflammatory diseases and reshaped it for the IBD space – specifically, ulcerative colitis, as well as an additional trial for a Crohn’s disease treatment.


First steps

Upon joining Abivax as CCO Michael felt compelled to reboot the organisation’s direction, ‘contributing to a revised mission and vision’ to oversee rebranding efforts. This encompassed not just ‘the new look, the feel,’ but how the company came across to customers and effective positioning for the product. Michael’s team took on a strong leadership role in pushing the IPO forward, as well as preparing for Abivax’s Investor Day, devising a new corporate deck for external use, and driving ‘the revised congress presence’. Of course, all their efforts to raise awareness of Abivax within the GI space were just part of the picture; Michael’s team had to prepare and plan for launch and assess the competitive payer landscape in the IBD space.


IPO success

The hard work paid off; Abivax’s latest IPO was the largest ever recorded on the Nasdaq from a French biotech company. Some three-quarters of the net proceeds are going to Phase III studies in moderate to severe ulcerative colitis, with the organisation’s Crohn’s disease programme, IND application and additional proof-of-concept report on inflammatory indication among the other areas that will be funded by the IPO proceeds.


Key learnings

Michael’s first six months at Abivax were certainly eventful and have given him plenty to reflect on his career. With every role, he notes, you learn new things along the way – ‘And so one of the things I’ve learned is you’re only as good as your team,’ he notes. Attracting and retaining top talent, and giving them room to feel they can own and direct their own work as necessary, are invaluable parts of building a collaborative environment. This is especially important for Michael’s commercial team, which is closely aligned to Abivax’s medical team; he talks warmly of Sheldon Sloan, the company’s CMO, who joined around the same time and with whom Michael had a previous working relationship, showing the value of maintaining your industry network. 


Michael also highlights the importance of recognising not just the ‘what’ of building a successful commercial team – i.e., hiring strong candidates who are team players, and setting the pace to allow them to thrive – but also the ‘how’. He recommends taking time to ‘pause, make sure people feel like they’re a part of it outside the broader commercial team, and making sure that they’re contributing, and they feel like they’re part of the journey’.


Advice for future CCOs

What advice does Michael have for executives who are first-time CCOs? First, he doubles down on how ‘you’re only as valuable as your team’ – something that is especially true for small companies and/or new hires. Empowering your team is crucial, ‘because they’re an extension of you in that capacity,’ Michael adds. He also recommends intimate knowledge of each team member’s unique function, what makes them tick, and how best to support them. Establishing and maintaining collaborative relationships within the broader organisation – such as the one Michael enjoys with Abivax’s medical team, for example – is another key for success. While Michael admits that organisations will always have ‘growing pains’ along the way, maintaining strong lines of communication ‘only helps you when challenges arise.’


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