Bill Haney, Skyhawk

Fat­ten­ing the bankroll, Bill Haney adds can­cer R&D pow­er­house Mer­ck to Sky­hawk's ros­ter of part­ners out to drug RNA

What­ev­er Bio­gen learned about Sky­hawk in the 6 months since it an­ted up $74 mil­lion to get a col­lab­o­ra­tion go­ing with their R&D team on drug­ging RNA for neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion, it must have been a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

Dean Li Linkedin

The big biotech has al­ready come back to the bar­gain­ing ta­ble and signed up to ex­pand the range of tar­gets on their dis­cov­ery list. And this morn­ing Sky­hawk is al­so an­nounc­ing that phar­ma gi­ant Mer­ck has stepped up with its own ini­tia­tive on neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion while adding can­cer to the RNA menu of col­lab­o­ra­tive spe­cial­ties at the up­start drug dis­cov­ery unit for the first time.

Sky­hawk chief Bill Haney wasn’t be­ing ex­plic­it about the terms — Mer­ck, in par­tic­u­lar, is tra­di­tion­al­ly loathe to dis­cuss the fi­nan­cial de­tails in­volved in their dis­cov­ery pacts — but fac­tor in the $149 mil­lion in hard up­fronts al­ready an­nounced with Bio­gen, Cel­gene and Take­da (al­so on neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion), and Haney tells me lit­tle Sky­hawk has round­ed up “quite a bit of mon­ey” with its deals in just 18 months. With the eq­ui­ty Haney has at­tract­ed or put in, the bankroll push­es well past the $200 mil­lion mark. 

The mile­stones? They stretch up in­to the bil­lions. Mer­ck alone at­tached a $600 mil­lion deal to­tal on every pro­gram they opt­ed for.

Tyler Jacks Jacks Lab

Dean Li, the head of dis­cov­ery at Mer­ck Re­search Labs, says the phar­ma gi­ant sees this deal as an op­por­tu­ni­ty to do some­thing brand new in RNA splic­ing, with a plan to go af­ter some cur­rent­ly un­drug­gable goals. (And no, he didn’t say which ones.)

Haney, a doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er and busy biotech en­tre­pre­neur, placed a heavy em­pha­sis on grow­ing the com­pa­ny with deal cash since he and the in­sid­ers at the com­pa­ny put up $8 mil­lion in seed mon­ey at the be­gin­ning of 2018. And while Sky­hawk wasn’t the first of the group of star­tups to un­veil plans to dis­cov­er small mol­e­cules that could be used to drug RNA, they’ve come up with the most im­pres­sive ros­ter of al­liances in the field.

Tai Wong Linkedin

Haney al­so runs Drag­on­fly, which in­cludes Tyler Jacks at MIT — a mar­quee sci­en­tist in the on­col­o­gy world — as one of the co-founders. Af­ter serv­ing as an un­of­fi­cial ad­vis­er at Sky­hawk for some time now, Jacks has now for­mal­ly ac­cept­ed the role of head of the sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­so­ry board at the com­pa­ny, which has built up a staff of 40 in Cam­bridge with a full-time equiv­a­len­cy group of 120. 

Sky­hawk has been grow­ing fast, but Haney says it’s al­so been run­ning at a de­lib­er­ate speed. The team pur­pose­ful­ly held back on open­ing up talks on the on­col­o­gy front un­til last Jan­u­ary’s JP Mor­gan con­fab. Can­cer is where the in-house pro­gram is fo­cused, with 2 pro­grams set to en­ter the clin­ic near-term. And now that they are div­ing deep­er in­to can­cer with some plans to ex­plore vir­gin ter­ri­to­ry in R&D, he’s brought in Bris­tol-My­ers vet Tai Wong as VP of on­col­o­gy bi­ol­o­gy. Wong spent 19 years at Bris­tol run­ning the on­col­o­gy drug dis­cov­ery unit. Then he jumped to Pelo­ton, which was ac­quired by Mer­ck for $2.2 bil­lion.

It’s a small world.

Qual­i­ty Con­trol in Cell and Gene Ther­a­py – What’s Re­al­ly at Stake?

In early 2021, Bluebird Bio was forced to suspend clinical trials of its gene therapy for sickle cell disease after two patients in the trial developed cancer. As company scientists rushed to assess whether there was any causal link between the therapy and the cancer cases, Bluebird’s stock value plummeted – as did those of multiple other biopharma companies developing similar therapies.

While investigations concluded that the gene therapy was unlikely to have caused cancer, investors and the public may be more skittish regarding the safety of gene and cell therapies after this episode. This recent example highlights how delicate the fields of cell and gene therapy remain today, even as they show great promise.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Sen­a­tors to NIH: Do more to pro­tect US bio­med­ical re­search from for­eign in­flu­ence

Although Thursday’s Senate health committee hearing was focused on how foreign countries and adversaries might be trying to steal or negatively influence biomedical research in the US, the only country mentioned by the senators and expert witnesses was China.

Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) made clear in her opening remarks that the US cannot “let the few instances of bad actors” overshadow the hard work of the many immigrant researchers in the US, many of which have won Nobel prizes for their work. But she also said, “There is more the NIH can be doing here.”

Covid-19 man­u­fac­tur­ing roundup: Mary­land looks to grow biotech ca­pac­i­ty with $400M check; Rus­sia lands sec­ond Sput­nik V part­ner this week

A Maryland real estate project has added three new biotech-focused manufacturing and research buildings to an office park to keep up with demand created by the pandemic, the Washington Business Journal reported.

The Milestone Business Park — located off of I-270 in Germantown, MD — will see the new buildings and a total of 532,000 square feet as the campus rebrands to Milestone Innovation Park.

Noubar Afeyan (Sebastien Micke/Paris Match/Contour by Getty Images)

As Mod­er­na rose, Flag­ship cashed in for $1.4B — with a lot more wealth still re­main­ing

For nearly a decade, Flagship poured record-setting levels of cash into Moderna, even as they faced setbacks on early programs and skeptics wondered whether the company’s science could ever match its hype.

Now that the science has delivered, Flagship is cashing in.

Over the last 13 months, since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, Flagship has sold off Moderna shares worth $1.4 billion. The sales, first reported by Forbes, came as the Cambridge biotech’s shares soared from just under $20 per share on Jan. 3, 2020, to $169.50 when markets opened Thursday.

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Law pro­fes­sors call for FDA to dis­close all safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta for drugs

Back in early 2018 when Scott Gottlieb led the FDA, there was a moment when the agency seemed poised to release redacted complete response letters and other previously undisclosed data. But that initiative never gained steam.

Now, a growing chorus of researchers are finding that a dearth of public data on clinical trials and pharmaceuticals means industry and the FDA cannot be held accountable, two law professors from Yale and New York University write in an article published Wednesday in the California Law Review.

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Novavax CEO Stanley Erck at the White House in 2020 (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

As fears mount over J&J and As­traZeneca, No­vavax en­ters a shaky spot­light

As concerns rise around the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines, global attention is increasingly turning to the little, 33-year-old, productless, bankruptcy-flirting biotech that could: Novavax.

In the now 16-month race to develop and deploy Covid-19 vaccines, Novavax has at times seemed like the pandemic’s most unsuspecting frontrunner and at times like an overhyped also-ran. Although they started the pandemic with only enough cash to last 6 months, they leveraged old connections and believers into $2 billion and emerged last summer with data experts said surpassed Pfizer and Moderna. They unveiled plans to quickly scale to 2 billion doses. Then they couldn’t even make enough material to run their US trial and watched four other companies beat them to the finish line.

FDA of­fers scathing re­view of Emer­gent plan­t's san­i­tary con­di­tions, em­ploy­ee train­ing af­ter halt­ing pro­duc­tion

The FDA wrapped up its inspection of Emergent’s troubled vaccine manufacturing plant in Baltimore on Tuesday, after halting production there on Monday. By Wednesday morning, the agency already released a series of scathing observations on the cross contamination, sanitary issues and lack of staff training that caused the contract manufacturer to dispose of millions of AstraZeneca and J&J vaccine doses.

Brad Bolzon (Versant)

Ver­sant pulls the wraps off of near­ly $1B in 3 new funds out to build the next fleet of biotech star­tups. And this new gen­er­a­tion is built for speed

Brad Bolzon has an apology to offer by way of introducing a set of 3 new funds that together pack a $950 million wallop in new biotech creation and growth.

“I want to apologize,” says the Versant chairman and managing partner, laughing a little in the intro, “that we don’t have anything fancy or flashy to tell you about our new fund. Same team, around the same amount of capital, same investment strategy. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But then there’s the flip side, where everything has changed. Or at least speeded into a relative blur. Here’s Bolzon:

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Paul Wotton, Obsidian CEO

Ver­tex adds a new gene edit­ing part­ner, pay­ing Ob­sid­i­an $75M for con­trol­lable CRISPR sys­tem

When Paul Wotton became CEO of Obsidian Therapeutics two years ago, he asked his team to explore where they could apply the company’s technology beyond cancer.

Launched by Michael Gilman in 2017, the GV-backed company had been working on a way of controlling cell therapies after they’re administered to a patient, allowing doctors to modulate the potency of CAR-T and other drugs as you might volume on a television set. Wotton wanted to them look beyond cancer, into areas such as gene editing.