Shahram Seyedin-Noor, Civilization Ventures

A small VC group ex­pands its hunt for in­spired biotech founders in need of seed cash

Civ­i­liza­tion Ven­tures, a Cal­i­for­nia-based VC fund that suc­cess­ful­ly bet on biotechs Rock­et Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and Sin­gu­lar Bio a few years ago, is bring­ing forth its next round of in­vest­ments.

Found­ed by en­tre­pre­neur Shahram Seyedin-Noor, the com­pa­ny has closed a $35 mil­lion fundraise and an­nounced Tues­day morn­ing it plans to in­vest in three ar­eas: di­ag­nos­tics, syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy and AI-re­lat­ed dig­i­tal health. The new life sci­ences cap­i­tal comes three years af­ter Civ­i­liza­tion’s first fund, an $8 mil­lion pool that saw Rock­et go pub­lic through re­verse merg­er and Sin­gu­lar be ac­quired by med­ical-ge­net­ics com­pa­ny In­vi­tae.

Civ­i­liza­tion touts its 70% “grad­u­a­tion rate” from that fund, with sev­er­al com­pa­nies suc­cess­ful­ly rais­ing sub­se­quent fi­nanc­ing rounds on their own. It was Seyedin-Noor’s first for­ay in­to the VC uni­verse, though he had pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence as an an­gel in­vestor, and he re­count­ed how the most im­pact­ful as­pect of that new for­ay came on a per­son­al lev­el.

One of his com­pa­nies pro­vid­ed a close rel­a­tive with a po­ten­tial­ly life-sav­ing blad­der can­cer di­ag­no­sis just a few weeks ago that doc­tors had found elu­sive.

“[They] had been go­ing in and out of the doc­tor’s of­fice for six months now, some­thing’s go­ing on,” Seyedin-Noor said. “We have a com­pa­ny in our port­fo­lio that spe­cial­izes in next-gen se­quenc­ing of urine to de­tect ear­ly-stage blad­der can­cer. So I asked the doc­tors if they could en­roll [them] in our tri­al, they said yes, and our tests showed 90-plus per­cent speci­fici­ty and sen­si­tiv­i­ty, this is blad­der can­cer…the doc­tor did a biop­sy and con­firmed it. That is the fu­ture.”

Seyedin-Noor said he learned many im­por­tant lessons from that first fund, with the most im­por­tant be­ing to not al­ways fol­low the lead of big­ger in­vestors. While those com­pa­nies may have their own in­ter­nal analy­ses for the best in­vest­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, Seyedin-Noor says this can of­ten ig­nore the peo­ple in charge of those look­ing for fund­ing.

It’s all part of Seyedin-Noor’s own “founder-cen­tric” in­vest­ment mod­el. Though hard­ly rein­vent­ing the wheel, Seyedin-Noor es­sen­tial­ly hopes to pick up what he claims big­ger VC funds lose through the cracks. By em­pha­siz­ing the hu­man as­pect and re­la­tion­ship-build­ing, Civ­i­liza­tion can set it­self apart from the ma­jor VC play­ers, even though it’s not strict­ly a black and white choice.

“If you’re the chief of a $500 mil­lion firm, you’re not go­ing to men­tor a founder when you in­vest $250,000 or $500,000, it’s not eco­nom­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble,” he said. “So among mi­cro-VCs, the founders can look at us and say ‘Shahram’s start­ed mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies, ex­it­ed mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies, has a pret­ty well-known port­fo­lio in my in­dus­try,’ ver­sus the oth­er guy who used to write code at Face­book or what­ev­er, he has no clue about health care…when that be­comes the com­par­i­son it’s kind of no con­test.”

In ad­di­tion, Seyedin-Noor says he us­es his past ex­pe­ri­ences as an en­tre­pre­neur as an as­set to sell to prospec­tive com­pa­nies, fo­cus­ing on the men­tor­ship of the in­di­vid­u­als launch­ing new biotechs. That can range from sim­ply be­ing an ex­tra ear for ad­vice to tak­ing a board seat on the com­pa­ny.

But all that doesn’t mean Civ­i­liza­tion ig­nores met­rics and mar­ket analy­sis. The VC has its own pro­pri­etary rank­ing sys­tem that de­ter­mines how and where the com­pa­ny spends its mon­ey. These rank­ings can run the gamut, with Seyedin-Noor pro­vid­ing an ex­am­ple that nepo­tism is a mas­sive red flag.

Ul­ti­mate­ly, the ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist com­bines such da­ta with what he feels in his gut.

“If your gut tells you ‘This guy is kind of a jerk, I don’t like the way he treats his em­ploy­ees,’ that might not fit in­to a tra­di­tion­al VC ma­trix,” Seyedin-Noor said. “But I will say where I think a lot of in­vestors go wrong is by ig­nor­ing the founders. It’s not just about the IP, about whether this com­pa­ny has the next se­cret sauce, it’s who’s run­ning the com­pa­ny.”

Secretary of health and human services Alex Azar speaking in the Rose Garden at the White House (Photo: AFP)

Trump’s HHS claims ab­solute au­thor­i­ty over the FDA, clear­ing path to a vac­cine EUA

The top career staff at the FDA have vowed not to let politics get in the way of science when looking at vaccine data this fall. But Alex Azar, who happens to be their boss’s boss, apparently won’t even give them a chance to stand in the way.

In a new memorandum issued Tuesday last week, the HHS chief stripped health agencies under his purview — including the FDA — of their rulemaking ability, asserting all such power “is reserved to the Secretary.” Sheila Kaplan of the New York Times first obtained and reported the details of the September 15 bulletin.

Eli Lilly CSO Dan Skovronsky (file photo)

#ES­MO20: Eli Lil­ly shows off the da­ta for its Verzenio suc­cess. Was it worth $18 bil­lion?

The press release alone, devoid of any number except for the size of the trial, added nearly $20 billion to Eli Lilly’s market cap back in June. Now investors and oncologists will get to see if the data live up to the hype.

On Sunday at ESMO, Eli Lilly announced the full results for its Phase III MonarchE trial of Verzenio, showing that across over 5,000 women who had had HR+, HER2- breast cancer, the drug reduced the odds of recurrence by 25%. That meant 7.8% of the patients on the drug arm saw their cancers return within 2 years, compared with 11.3% on the placebo arm.

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Greg Friberg (File photo)

#ES­MO20: Am­gen team nails down sol­id ear­ly ev­i­dence of AMG 510’s po­ten­tial for NSCLC, un­lock­ing the door to a wave of KRAS pro­grams

The first time I sat down with Amgen’s Greg Friberg to talk about the pharma giant’s KRAS G12C program for sotorasib (AMG 510) at ASCO a little more than a year ago, there was high excitement about the first glimpse of efficacy from their Phase I study, with 5 of 10 evaluable non-small cell lung cancer patients demonstrating a response to the drug.

After decades of failure targeting KRAS, sotorasib offered the first positive look at a new approach that promised to open a door to a whole new approach by targeting a particular mutation to a big target that had remained “undruggable” for decades.

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#ES­MO20: Out to beat Tagris­so, J&J touts 100% ORR for EGFR bis­pe­cif­ic/TKI com­bo — fu­el­ing a quick leap to PhI­II

J&J’s one-two punch on EGFR-mutant non-small cell lung cancer has turned up some promising — although decidedly early — results, fueling the idea that there’s yet room to one up on third-generation tyrosine kinase inhibitors.

Twenty out of 20 advanced NSCLC patients had a response after taking a combination of an in-house TKI dubbed lazertinib and amivantamab, a bispecific antibody targeting both EGFR and cMET engineered on partner Genmab’s platform, J&J reported at ESMO. All were treatment-naïve, and none has seen their cancer progress at a median follow-up of seven months.

#ES­MO20: As­traZeneca aims to spur PRO­found shift in prostate can­cer treat­ment with Lyn­parza OS da­ta

AstraZeneca has unveiled the final, mature overall survival data that cemented Lynparza’s first approval in prostate cancer approval — touting its lead against rivals with the only PARP inhibitor to have demonstrated such benefit.

But getting the Merck-partnered drug to the right patients remains a challenge, something the companies are hoping to change with the new data cut.

The OS numbers on the subgroup with BRCA1/2 or ATM-mutated metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer are similar to the first look on offer when the FDA expanded the label in May: Lynparza reduced the risk of death by 31% versus Xtandi and Zytiga. Patients on Lynparza lived a median of 19.1 months, compared to 14.7 months for the anti-androgen therapies (p = 0.0175).

Exelixis CEO Michael Morrissey (file photo)

#ES­MO20: Look out Mer­ck. Bris­tol My­ers and Ex­elix­is stake out their com­bo’s claim to best-in-class sta­tus for front­line kid­ney can­cer

Now that the PD-(L)1 checkpoints are deeply entrenched in the oncology market, it’s time to welcome a wave of combination therapies — beyond chemo — looking to extend their benefit to larger numbers of patients. Bristol Myers Squibb ($BMY} and Exelixis {EXEL} are close to the front of that line.

Today at ESMO the collaborators pulled the curtain back on some stellar data for their combination of Opdivo (the PD-1) and Cabometyx (the TKI), marking a significant advance for the blockbuster Bristol Myers franchise while offering a big leg up for the team at Exelixis.

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Donald Trump and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, before boarding Marine One (Getty Images)

Pric­ing deal col­laps­es over Big Phar­ma's re­fusal to is­sue $100 'cash card­s' be­fore the elec­tion — re­port

Late in August, as negotiations on a pricing deal with President Trump reached a boiling point, PhRMA president Stephen Ubl sent an email update to the 34 biopharma chiefs that sit on his board. He wrote that if the industry did not agree to pay for a $100 “cash card” sent to seniors before November, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows was going to tell the news media Big Pharma was refusing to “share the savings” with the elderly — and that all of the blame for failed drug pricing negotiations would lie squarely on the industry.

Dan Skovronsky, Eli Lilly CSO

An­a­lysts are quick to pan Eli Lil­ly's puz­zling first cut of pos­i­tive clin­i­cal da­ta for its Covid-19 an­ti­body

Eli Lilly spotlighted a success for one of 3 doses of their closely-watched Covid-19 antibody drug Wednesday morning. But analysts quickly highlighted some obvious anomalies that could come back to haunt the pharma giant as it looks for an emergency use authorization to launch marketing efforts.

The pharma giant reported that LY-CoV555, developed in collaboration with AbCellera, significantly reduced the rate of hospitalization among patients who were treated with the antibody. The drug arm of the study had a 1.7% hospitalization rate, compared to 6% in the control group, marking a 72% drop in risk.

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#ES­MO20: It’s not just Keytru­da any­more — Mer­ck spot­lights 3 top ear­ly-stage can­cer drugs

Any $12 billion megablockbuster in the portfolio tends to overshadow everything else in the pipeline. Which is something Merck can tell you a little bit about.

Keytruda not only dominates the PD-(L)1 field, it looms over everything Merck does, to the point some analysts wonder if Merck is a one-trick pony.

There’s no shortage of Keytruda data on display at ESMO this weekend, but now the focus is shifting to the future role of new drugs and combos in maintaining that lead position for years to come. And the pharma giant has a special focus for 3 early-stage efforts where Roger Perlmutter’s oncology team is placing some big bets.

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