Startups, Venture

Akero elbows its way into a crowded NASH field, with $65M and a strategy for tackling a blockbuster market

Over the last few weeks we’ve been treated to a couple of stories about small biotechs which enjoyed a swift run-up in stock values after posting their beauty shots of clinical data for NASH drugs. NASH remains the big new disease target that is sucking up a lot of R&D attention at large and small biopharmas around the world, and investors are looking to ride one of the winning players to the promised land.

You can now add a new company to watch in this sultry research zone. And it’s a brand new baby that’s been gifted with $65 million in operating capital and a deeply experienced Pfizer vet to head up the research work.

The company has been dubbed Akero, which is debuting today with a Cambridge base and $65 million in Series A cash, with Apple Tree Partners leading the way. 

Now, with all the clinical work that’s been going on for the last few years in NASH, you might think that we’ve already seen the eventual winners jump forward. But then, you haven’t met the people at Akero.

The startup has in-licensed an FGF21 drug that’s already been through early-stage work at Amgen, which let it go because of their move away from metabolics.

This isn’t the first FGF21 in the clinical. Bristol-Myers has one that has been through Phase II. 

Tim Rolph

“My experience with FGF21 goes back 8 years,” says Akero CSO Tim Rolph. It started at Pfizer and continued after he left the pharma giant. The science around FGF21, he adds, has grown exponentially in the last 3 to 4 years. 

“It’s a mechanism that uses the whole body to get to a better place,” says Rolph. “It plays an essential role restoring cells under stress — that’s what drove my interest.”

Jonathon Young, the CEO, and Rolph went to go out in search of drug, and found this program at Amgen, which licensed it out. And the two are pumped about the engineering work that has gone into it to give the drug longer durability.

Apple Tree Partners, where Young has been a partner, seeded the project. Atlas Venture, venBio Partners and Versant Ventures all joined as co-leads, making an impressive group of deep-pocket investors. They’ll be represented on the board by Aaron Kantoff, Kevin Bitterman, Aaron Royston and Graham Walmsley.

Young — like a lot of startup biotech CEOs — gets a little skittish when you try to nail down the staff plans right now. There are the two founders, he says, with plans to add more employees. We’ll see how that goes. 


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