Yesterday we were excited to see four Atlas portfolio companies selected to receive “Fierce15” awards from FierceBiotech as part of the 2015 “class”. It’s a wonderful honor for them, and for Atlas, and thought it a great moment to reflect on their stories.
For those that don’t know the “Fierce15′, here’s some context: these awards were started back in 2003 by the FierceBiotech editorial staff with the aim of recognizing fifteen of the “most promising” private biotech companies. This year’s list is the 13th annual set that they have put together. While not always perfectly prescient, they have been remarkably good at identifying some of the industry’s big winners: seven of the fifteen companies with the largest current market capitalizations (greater than $1.25B as of today) from the IPO Classes of 2013-2014 were Fierce15 winners in past years, including Juno, Intrexon, Ultragenyx, Bluebird, Agios, Portola, and Fibrogen. In addition, according to Editor-in-Chief John Carroll’s write-up, eight of the 2014 Fierce15 class have either already gone public or are filed to go – an amazingly high percentage.
Atlas has been fortunate enough to have at least one portfolio company receive the Fierce honor every year since the inaugural 2003 Class, except for 2005. Past winners include companies like Avila, Zafgen, miRagen, and Nimbus. Last year, we were pleased to have two Fund IX companies honored – Spero and Navitor.
We’re thrilled to see four of our other Fund IX companies recognized this year, a great recognition of the hardwork of our entrepreneurs at Intellia, Padlock, Surface Oncology, and Unum. It’s worth noting that the first three of these came out of our seed-led venture creation process at Atlas, with all of those three incubating within our offices in their formative moments.
In the introduction to this year’s awards, FierceBiotech’s editors comment on the “big brain drain from Pharma to Biotech”. This is most certainly the case for our four startups; for example, Chuck Wilson, formerly head of BD at the Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research, is CEO and founder of Unum; Intellia has John Leonard, former head of AbbVie’s R&D effort, as Chief Medical Officer; Mike Gilman, former head of research at Biogen, is CEO and founder of Padlock; and Detlev Biniszkiewicz, former head of oncology strategy at AZ, is CEO of Surface. Most of their management teams have decades of experience at Biogen, Novartis, Pfizer, Merck, Vertex, and other great biotech training grounds.
Each of the companies has a good write-up by the editors of FierceBiotech (here), so instead of walking through where they are today, I’ll quickly reflect on their founding and the “special sauce” that makes them so interesting.
It won’t come as a surprise to hear that “CRISPR is hot”; this rapidly evolving gene editing approach has the potential to revolutionize molecular biology and medicine the way PCR did nearly thirty years ago. Intellia was founded by Atlas, Novartis, and Caribou Biosciences in 2014 to harness patent-protected CRISPR technology to develop transformative medicines based on both in vivo and ex vivo uses.
Although an “overnight” success according to its Fierce15 profile, launching Intellia was the culmination of nearly eighteen months of intensive pre-startup work by Atlas EIR Nessan Bermingham (now Intellia’s CEO) and my partner Jean Francois Formela on the concept; in fact, the first formal “seed” deal presentation at Atlas was in the winter of 2013, well before any of the therapeutic CRISPR plays had come together. It’s funny to read that seed pitch deck now (I did yesterday) as there have been many twists and turns along the road to today.
It’s also amazing to think that in less than 30 months this field has raised ~$500M in equity and deal-related capital across three CRISPR companies. With this type of fuel, it’s no wonder the companies are all expanding their footprints and hiring at a feverish pace: although it incubated within Atlas in its early days, Intellia quickly grew out of our space in late 2014 and set up its own laboratories here in Cambridge MA, with potentially 75 staffers by end of 2015 – becoming a “big” startup biotech quite quickly.
Padlock is working hard to change the way we treat inflammatory autoimmune diseases; as noted in its Fierce15 profile, they are seeking to “intervene at an earlier stage in the immune process, targeting the enzymes responsible for triggering the body’s alarms in the first place in hopes of finding new therapies for some common diseases.” Mike Gilman, cofounder and Atlas EIR, wrote an eloquent piece “Rekindling the Flame”, describing the fascinating immunology behind the company’s founding, when Padlock came out of its seed-stage stealth mode in December 2014 with the closing of its Series A.
The roots of the startup go back to Scripps Research Institute, where two scientists were doing complementary work on the PAD enzyme family – Paul Thompson, who is now at UMass, and Kerri Mowen, who remains at Scripps La Jolla. We got excited by their work in the summer of 2013, and were thrilled to recruit Mike to (re)join us when he left Biogen for a second time. Watching successful serial entrepreneurs like Mike raise their hand to jump in is a great biomarker of quality. With Mike at the helm, we seeded the company with some clear milestones around the drug-ability of the enzyme family, and closed a Series A with J&J’s Boston Innovation Center, MerckSerono Ventures, and Index Ventures later in 2014. We’ve since made a ton of progress on both small molecule and antibody approaches to several isoforms of the PAD enzyme class.
Unlike Intellia, Padlock has stuck with its “virtual” lab model to date (though that may change in 2016), with only a few core team members incubating at Atlas’s offices in Cambridge and an important research relationship with Evotec. They have also formed a partnership with GSK to access a “whole basket of assets” targeting PAD4, as Mike described in the “Art of the In-License” earlier in the summer. We’re expecting to enter development in 2016 and look forward to unlocking the promise and potential of this enzyme class across a range of serious autoimmune diseases.
Right next to CRISPR at the top of the “heat index” in biotech is the field of immuno-oncology (I/O); seems like there’s new data, new deals, and new startups in the space every day. It’s clear that harnessing the immune response to cancer is going to transform the treatment of many cancers over the next decade.
While remaining stealth regarding the specifics of its targets, the company is focused on “on improving antigen uptake and presentation, blocking suppressor cells that populate the tumor microenvironment and heading off cytokines and metabolites that can blunt an immune system attack” as described in its Fierce15 profile. Rather than repeat it here, Surface’s founding concept, story, and list of great co-investors was unveiled in a January 2015 blogpost “Immuno-oncology: Scratching the Surface”. Since that time, my partner and founding CEO Dave Grayzel has succeeded in replacing himself by recruiting Big Pharma veteran Detlev Biniszkiewicz, previously at AZ and Novartis, as CEO in May of this year (here).
Further, as noted by Fierce, Surface has assembled an impressive “brain trust” of immuno-oncology thought leaders to help advise it as it advances its stable of programs: Sasha Rudensky (MSK), Arlene Sharpe (Harvard), Christopher Hunter and John Wherry (both Penn), Carla Rothlin (Yale), John Stagg (Montreal), and Elliott Sigal (ex-BMS R&D Head).
Taking a cue from Elliott Sigal’s comments to the Fierce15 editors (here), Surface is the “Wayne Gretsky of immuno-oncology”: instead of going where the puck and everyone else is, they are going after targets where the puck will be…
Unum’s next generation cell therapy platform is also part of the wave of excitement in the I/O field, specifically around engineered T-cell therapies like the CAR-T approaches of Juno, Kite, and others.
We first engaged with cell therapy pioneer Dario Campana, the scientific founder of Unum who provided the design for an Antibody-Coupled T-cell Receptor (ACTR), in late 2013 after his Cancer Research online publication detailing the concept (here). The technology offered enormous potential as a universal engineered T-cell construct that could be used to bring the power of T-cell effector functions to any anti-cancer antibody; this universality drove the name Unum – “Out of many, One”.
In early 2014, co-founder and CEO Chuck Wilson engaged with Dario to start Unum, with Series A backing from Fidelity and Atlas that came together later in the summer. For details of the landscape and Unum’s approach, see last year’s blog post announcing the Series A round titled “Cellular Immunotherapy & Unum Therapeutics: Out of Many, One” and Chuck’s great review of the space in ‘From The Trenches’ titled “Better Living Through T-cells“.
After powering up the platform with a significant Series B and a multi-target deal with Seattle Genetics in the spring of this year, we are rapidly advancing deeper into clinical testing. Unum is currently engaged in a Phase 1 ACTR study with Rituxan, plans to launch a second study in the coming months, and aim to grow the portfolio significantly over the coming quarters.
We’re thrilled with all four of our 2015 Fierce15 honorees – great companies working on transformative therapeutics addressing major unmet medical needs. We are fortunate to get to work with great people doing great things, and appreciate FierceBiotech recognizing their efforts.