CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang's upstart biotech seeks $100M-plus IPO for preclinical base editing work
The CRISPR pioneers’ new, gentler-touch company is aiming for a $100 million initial public offering.
Beam Therapeutics, headed by former Editas founders and gene-editing trailblazers David Liu, Feng Zhang, and J Keith Joung, debuted last year, pushing a softer, more flexible version of gene editing, reflective of a larger trend in the biotech industry. The promise was that instead of hacking at base pairs like first-gen CRISPR does, Beam could instead modify them in a far less disruptive way.
Unsurprising for a company founded by scientists who helped reshape genetic disease medicine, Beam has been well-funded since its debut. It emerged out of stealth mode with $87 million, primarily from ARCH and F-Prime Capital Partners, and then a $135 million Series B from A round investors plus Redmile Group, Cormorant Asset Management, Altitude Life Science Ventures. It’s built in part off tech from Editas and Liu’s lab at MIT.
ARCH and F-Prime are the biggest stockholders at 23.0% and 19.4%, respectively, while subsidiaries of Hillhouse Capital and Temasek claim around 7% each. Notably, founders Liu and Zhang kept 9.1% and 7.2% for themselves. CEO John Evans owns 3.6% of the company.
CRISPR was revolutionary six years ago. It made widescale gene editing possible for the first time, offering unprecedented precision that allowed scientists to knock out one gene without hitting the rest.
The increasingly clear problem, though, is that it functions as a very price nail remover. It can pull out the rusty or otherwise problematic nail you need gone, opening a slew of long-understood genetic diseases to potential cures, but leaves questions about the fallout to the house those nails held up. And once out, you can’t put a nail back in.
Part of Beam’s answer to that question is the intuitive one: It replaces the old nails with new ones; rather than just cutting out base pairs, it can splice in new ones, replacing individual mutant nucleotides that give rise to disease. It accomplishes this largely with versions of base-editing enzyme called deaminase.
Contrasting with the conventional metaphor of CRISPR as “molecular scissors,” Beam likes to compare it to a pencil that can erase and rewrite genes. The crucial point is that the process doesn’t create the double-strand breaks in DNA that the first versions of CRISPR technology do.
Beam is just one of a handful of new biotechs now aiming to accomplish CRISPR’s initial goals without causing these double-strand disruptions. Another Feng Zhang company, Arbor, is pioneering RNA — as opposed to DNA — editing, Flagship Pioneering’s new Omega Therapeutics is working on an innovative epigenetic model, and TruCode is using a synthetic compound called PNA to naturally induce gene editing.
Though still preclinical, Beam lists 10 diseases it’s aiming for, including longtime gene-editing targets beta thalassemia and sickle cell disease.