Deep tech, round 2: DCVC Bio bags $350M fund to chase the tip of the life sci­ence spear

It took one trip from San Fran­cis­co to Van­cou­ver for Kier­sten Stead and her DCVC Bio crew to feel con­fi­dent about throw­ing their weight — and cash — be­hind Ab­Cellera.

Kier­sten Stead

CEO Carl Hansen’s aca­d­e­m­ic back­ground and the po­ten­tial of the plat­form, which com­bined ma­chine vi­sion and ro­bot­ics with mi­croflu­idics, were promis­ing. But the site vis­it sealed the Se­ries A deal, where DCVC was the lead and on­ly in­vestor.

“We saw a com­pa­ny that had a high­ly ad­van­taged method for ba­si­cal­ly turn­ing an­ti­body de­vel­op­ment in­to a deep search mech­a­nism, sim­i­lar to what Google might do,” she said.

As Ab­Cellera bur­nish­es its pro­file through an Eli Lil­ly-part­nered an­ti­body de­signed to help end the pan­dem­ic, Stead and John Hamer, the oth­er man­ag­ing part­ner of DCVC Bio, have closed $350 mil­lion to bet on com­pa­nies that sim­i­lar­ly sit at the in­ter­sec­tion of “deep tech” and life sci­ences.

DCVC Bio II, just like its pre­de­ces­sor, will look for ear­ly-stage com­pa­nies. Se­ries A, seed rounds should com­prise the ma­jor­i­ty of the port­fo­lio, but they al­so don’t mind rolling up their sleeves to help spin out a start­up if the op­por­tu­ni­ty aris­es.

John Hamer

The way Stead de­scribes it, these are places where com­pu­ta­tion is an “ab­solute core com­pe­ten­cy” rather than an af­ter­thought or sim­ply a sup­port­ing func­tion.

“Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, our com­pa­nies gen­er­ate their own da­ta, they have their own de­vel­op­ers and they’re build­ing nov­el AI, nov­el al­go­rithms on their pro­pri­etary da­ta to ad­dress re­cal­ci­trant prob­lems across the life sci­ences,” she said.

The team — most of whom worked to­geth­er at Mon­san­to Growth Ven­tures be­fore mov­ing un­der DCVC — is think­ing big. Cit­ing “the triple threat of cli­mate change, an in­creas­ing glob­al pop­u­la­tion and frag­ile glob­al sup­ply chains,” they al­so want to tap in­to agri­cul­ture and in­dus­tri­al biotech­nol­o­gy.

When it comes to ther­a­peu­tics, Stead is be­gin­ning to see the con­flu­ence of dif­fer­ent modal­i­ties from pro­tein degra­da­tion to cell ther­a­pies and gene edit­ing.

Chas­ing those emerg­ing arcs of com­pu­ta­tion and bi­ol­o­gy has brought DCVC Bio to new in­ven­tions in ro­bot­ics and au­toma­tion — think Or­ca Bio’s au­to­mat­ed sys­tem for man­u­fac­tur­ing cell grafts — as well as liv­ing med­i­cines, such as the ge­net­i­cal­ly en­gi­neered mi­crobes at Novome. Phys­i­cal in­tel­li­gent sys­tems will loom large to com­ple­ment soft­ware break­throughs, she pre­dict­ed, while things like re­in­force­ment learn­ing (al­go­rithms that can gen­er­ate their own da­ta) could work around some of the cur­rent con­straints in bi­o­log­i­cal re­search.

Even though phar­ma these days is clear­ly cog­nizant of the need to in­te­grate new com­pu­ta­tion­al tech­nolo­gies, Stead said they face the re­al chal­lenge of re­cruit­ing peo­ple who have ex­pe­ri­ence set­ting up com­mer­cial AI. That’s not to say they don’t play a key role in bring­ing the com­pounds gen­er­at­ed on new plat­forms to­ward the mar­ket; they may just come in lat­er in the process.

“A com­mon thread of en­tre­pre­neurs that we in­vest in and build com­pa­nies with is that they ran X com­pu­ta­tion­al group at X phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny but re­al­ized that they couldn’t start from scratch and build it from the ground up,” she said, “and and they were re­al­ly pro­found­ly lim­it­ed by that, and want­ed to start a start­up so that they could do X right, what­ev­er their par­tic­u­lar area of in­ter­est is.”

DCVC man­ag­ing part­ners Matt Ocko and Zachary Bogue said on their blog re­cent­ly the fact that the new fund was raised en­tire­ly dur­ing the pan­dem­ic high­lights the ap­petite for even more. Their first fund has backed some ef­forts to ad­dress the cur­rent health­care cri­sis; it’s time to find “the next set of so­lu­tions to the next set of prob­lems.”

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 has vowed not to let politics overrule 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 the FDA and other health agencies under his purview of their rule making 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.

President Donald Trump (via AP Images)

Signs of an 'Oc­to­ber Vac­cine Sur­prise' alarm ca­reer sci­en­tists

President Donald Trump, who seems intent on announcing a COVID-19 vaccine before Election Day, could legally authorize a vaccine over the objections of experts, officials at the FDA and even vaccine manufacturers, who have pledged not to release any vaccine unless it’s proved safe and effective.

In podcasts, public forums, social media and medical journals, a growing number of prominent health leaders say they fear that Trump — who has repeatedly signaled his desire for the swift approval of a vaccine and his displeasure with perceived delays at the FDA — will take matters into his own hands, running roughshod over the usual regulatory process.

#ES­MO20: Push­ing in­to front­line, Mer­ck and Bris­tol My­ers duke it out with new slate of GI can­cer da­ta

Having worked in parallel for years to move their respective PD-1 inhibitors up to the first-line treatment of gastrointestinal cancers, Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb finally have the data at ESMO for a showdown.

Comparing KEYNOTE-590 and CheckMate-649, of course, comes with the usual caveats. But a side-by-side look at the overall survival numbers also offer some perspective on a new frontier for the reigning checkpoint rivals, both of whom are claiming to have achieved a first.

Is­raeli biotech rais­es $57M to go where cur­rent BRAF in­hibitors can't, with back­ing from No­var­tis, SR One

For the blockbuster potential of Novartis’ Tafinlar and Pfizer’s Braftovi, all the BRAF inhibitors on the market so far only target V600 mutations — which accounts for roughly 50% of patients.

Israeli biotech Novellus now has $57 million to develop a drug that they say can help the other 50% who have everything else.

The Series C will fund a Phase II trial for PLX-8394, a “paradox breaker” that could block RAF without activating MAPK signaling. In a Phase I trial, a patient with a BRAF fusion saw their tumor go away after taking the drug, allowing Novellus to hit the ground running.

Jonathan Rigby, Immune Regulation group CEO

Im­mune Reg­u­la­tion, tak­ing two clin­i­cal pro­grams to 're­set' the im­mune sys­tem, nets $53M+ Se­ries B

A little under two years after a company rebranding, Immune Regulation is taking an even bigger step toward advancing its goals.

Formerly known as Peptinnovate, the British biotech announced a $53.4 million Series B early Monday morning, helping to further advance two clinical programs in rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. Though those are the two initial indications the company is focusing on, CEO Jonathan Rigby told Endpoints News he hopes the candidates can be applied to a broad swath of autoimmune disorders.

UP­DAT­ED: Two wild weeks for Grail end in $8B Il­lu­mi­na buy­out

Grail’s whirlwind two weeks have ended in the wealthy arms of its former founder and benefactors.

Illumina has shelled out $8 billion to reacquire the closely-watched liquid biopsy startup they spun out just 5 years ago and sold off much of its shares just 3 years ago. The deal comes nearly two weeks after the well-heeled startup filed for a potentially massive IPO — one that was disrupted just a week later when Bloomberg reported that Illumina was in talks to buy their former spinout for up to $8 billion.

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Roche vaults to the front of the NL­RP3 clin­i­cal race, pay­ing $448M up­front to bag In­fla­zome

Roche is going all in on NLRP3.

The pharma giant is putting down $448 million (€380 million) upfront to snatch Novartis-backed Inflazome, which makes it a clinical player in the space overnight.

Dublin and Cambridge, UK-based Inflazome is the second NLRP3-focused biotech Roche has acquired in less than two years, and although no numbers were disclosed in the Jecure buyout, this is almost certainly a much larger deal.

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Anthony Fauci (AP Images)

A press of­fi­cer at An­tho­ny Fau­ci’s NI­AID was un­masked as a hard-right Covid troll. He just re­tired to­day

William B Crews had been a public affairs specialist at the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

That ended today when he informed the agency of his decision to retire, after he was identified as the managing editor at RedState, a prominent Trump loyalist website.

Crews’ RedState duties are performed under the alias streiff. While enjoying the benefits of pseudonymity, he disparaged and worked against NIAID with an incendiary level of rhetoric in the midst of a pandemic.

#ES­MO20: Bris­tol My­ers marks Op­di­vo's sec­ond ad­ju­vant win — eye­ing a stan­dard of care gap

Moving into earlier and earlier treatment lines, Bristol Myers Squibb is reporting that adjuvant treatment with Opdivo has doubled the time that esophageal or gastroesophageal junction cancer patients stay free of disease.

With the CheckMate-577 data at ESMO, CMO Samit Hirawat said, the company believes it can change the treatment paradigm.

While a quarter to 30% of patients typically achieve a complete response following chemoradiation therapy and surgery, the rest do not, said Ronan Kelly of Baylor University Medical Center. The recurrence rate is also high within the first year, Hirawat added.