Art Krieg’s ski trip to Deer Valley in Utah last February was good for a lot more than mastering the moguls.
Ben Auspitz from F-Prime joined the trip organized by Krieg’s original backers at Sofinnova Ventures, and their conversations on and around the slopes led Auspitz and F-Prime to take the lead on a $27 million B round for Checkmate Pharmaceuticals, announced Thursday evening.
“We weren’t in any kind of a hurry to raise more money,” Krieg tells me. So it was a relaxed time to start going over Checkmate’s Phase Ib study, now underway and looking at its drug’s ability to help melanoma patients who had failed Keytruda.
The $27 million sets Checkmate up for the next 18 months, says the CEO. That will get them well past the point of entering an expansion phase of the study, with plans to bring in about 100 more patients and start to better gauge the impact of their drug — which activates toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9) — in driving a T cell response to cancer cells.
That’s a complementary strategy to the PD-(L)1 checkpoint drugs like Keytruda, which take the brakes off the immune system so T cells can swarm cancer cells. Krieg obtained the drug after Cytos had tried, and failed, with it in asthma.
Checkmate probably won’t start talking specific data on its combo of their drug with Keytruda until later in the fall of this year, when it gets something to present at a scientific conference. But Krieg tells me that they’ve already had a chance to track tumor regression in patients. They’re not a public company, he adds, so there’s no need to release little batches of data along the way.
Krieg is very asset-focused, and he has been working hard to keep the company team small. Checkmate has grown to about 18 staffers now, with most in Cambridge, MA. A few are scattered around the globe. Checkmate doesn’t have a lab and doesn’t plan on getting one. While Krieg — a longtime biotech vet and RNA expert — expects to add another 6 to a dozen staffers with this round, he still doesn’t expect to get big at any time.
“The most likely outcome down the road is M&A,” he says, after the biotech snags more human data. But on the other hand, he has a group of backers — which also includes his old Pfizer boss Corey Goodman at venBio — who have the cash to go into pivotal work and beyond. They could also do an IPO down the road, so no one course has been set yet.
“We will be applying for breakthrough therapy in the next few months,” adds Krieg, who did a short stint as CSO at Sarepta before he and then CEO Chris Garabedian had a falling out, 10 months before Garabedian followed him out the exit.
That BTD discussion, he says, will also give Checkpoint the chance to start a dialogue with the agency about what a registration pathway looks like.
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