After selling to Genentech, the old Jecure team is back at an RNA-focused startup — and more enthusiastic than ever
When Genentech swooped in to buy NASH-focused Jecure Therapeutics back in 2018, a handful of the startup’s executives weren’t quite ready to disperse.
It had been just three years since Jecure launched with a preclinical portfolio of NLRP3 inhibitors — and the takeover came sooner than anyone, including CEO Jeff Stafford, had expected. So he got talking with James Veal and Gretchen Bain, two serial entrepreneurs in charge of Jecure’s R&D.
“We wanted to do something together again,” Stafford told Endpoints News. “All of us share a high enthusiasm for early stage drug discovery, and had some ideas.”
A year later, they launched 858 Therapeutics — named after the San Diego area code — to focus on the burgeoning field of RNA modulation and the role it plays in cancer. Right away, they snapped up Gotham Therapeutics, a New York-based startup that was creating medicines to drug key proteins that modulate mRNA, for an undisclosed amount.
And on Tuesday, they emerged from stealth mode with a $60 million Series A round led by Versant Ventures. NEA, Cormorant Asset Management and Logos Capital chipped into the round.
“We just found that space to be incredibly dynamic where there have been, over the last few years, just a whole host of breakthrough discoveries,” Versant partner Carlo Rizzuto said.
While the industry was initially laser-focused on modifying DNA, evidence began piling up years ago that RNA modifications could help determine to which degree genes are translated into proteins. The modifications play a big role in some cancers — but until recently, scientists have struggled to address those targets due to a dearth of assays and challenges in creating chemical matter with drug-like properties, Stafford said.
858’s platform revolves around “specialized know-how and specialized assays,” according to Stafford. The Series A money should be enough to get the team into the clinic by 2023 — but the CEO was careful not to disclose the team’s targets just yet. He says the company should be able to tackle three to five programs at a given time.
Veal and Bain are on board as CSO and VP of biology, respectively — the same roles they held at Jecure. All three execs have experience at Versant-backed biotechs, including Quanticel and Amira Pharmaceuticals, which were bought by Celgene and Bristol Myers Squibb, respectively.
Stafford says he’s looking to expand the 25-person team to 40 in the next 18 months, with headquarters in San Diego and operations in New York.
“(It’s) I think very rare in this business to get to work with the same team over multiple successful companies,” Rizzuto said. “There are not many, you know, three-times successful teams that are doing their fourth company and so I think that’s a very clear point of differentiation.”