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.

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck pulls Keytru­da in SCLC af­ter ac­cel­er­at­ed nod. Is the FDA get­ting tough on drug­mak­ers that don't hit their marks?

In what could be an early shot in the battle against drugmakers that whiff on confirmatory studies to support accelerated approvals, the FDA ordered Bristol Myers Squibb late last year to give up Opdivo’s approval in SCLC. Now, Merck is next on the firing line — are we seeing the FDA buckling down on post-marketing offenders?

Merck has withdrawn its marketing approval for PD-(L)1 inhibitor Keytruda in metastatic small cell lung cancer as part of what it describes as an “industry-wide evaluation” by the FDA of drugs that do not meet the post-marketing checkpoints on which their accelerated nods were based, the company said Monday.

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Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca CEO (AP Images)

Pas­cal So­ri­ot cash­es in As­traZeneca’s chips on Mod­er­na for $1.2B cash in­jec­tion

While still working to prove its own Covid-19 vaccine, AstraZeneca has reportedly capitalized on the success of another.

The company has sold off its 7.7% stake in Moderna and turned it into $1.2 billion in cash, according to the Times, beefing up the reserves just as Pascal Soriot is wrapping up his $39 billion acquisition of Alexion and its rare disease pipeline.

AstraZeneca’s stock sale follows a similar move by Merck in December. But like its pharma brethren, the British giant is keeping its R&D collaborations with Moderna.

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Roivant par­lays a $450M chunk of eq­ui­ty in biotech buy­out, grab­bing a com­pu­ta­tion­al group to dri­ve dis­cov­ery work

New Roivant CEO Matt Gline has crafted an all-equity upfront deal to buy out a Boston-based biotech that has been toiling for several years now at building a supercomputing-based computational platform to design new drugs. And he’s adding it to the Erector set of science operations that are being built up to support their network of biotech subsidiaries with an eye to growing the pipeline in a play to create a new kind of pharma company.

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Or­biMed, bio­phar­ma's biggest in­vestor, clos­es $3.5B in three new pri­vate funds

One of the world’s leading biopharma investors has pulled in its next rounds of cash, with the funds planned to go to dozens of companies around the world.

OrbiMed raised $3.5 billion across three private investment funds, it announced Monday, as it continues building on its long track record in healthcare and biopharma. All in all, the firm expects to invest in at least 60 companies across the US, Asia and Europe.

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CEO James Rosen (Artizan)

Pre­ci­sion in­flam­ma­tion drugs? Yale spin­out Ar­ti­zan clinch­es $11M and Bio­haven deal to sin­gle out bad bac­te­ria

As a Yale spinout based in New Haven, Artizan Biosciences was pretty familiar with Biohaven — a successful neuro-focused drug developer and “shining star,” as Artizan CEO James Rosen puts it, in the burgeoning biotech community there.

But when a board director and an investor tried connecting the two, they were in for a surprise.

“Unbeknownst to Artizan, Biohaven had been doing a landscaping exercise surveying microbiome companies with whom to partner for CNS disorders,” Rosen told Endpoints News, “and lo and behold, they found Artizan right in their backyard.”

Stefan Oschmann, Merck KGaA CEO (Sipa USA via AP Images)

Mer­ck KGaA ear­marks $855M for De­bio­phar­m's pro­grammed cell death pro­mot­ing drug in glob­al li­cens­ing deal

Merck KGaA, primarily known for its CDMO work, is playing with giants in oncology and looking at novel mechanisms of action to compete. Now, the German player is placing a big down payment on a late-stage candidate looking to stop tumor cells’ ability to stave off programmed death.

Merck KGaA will dole out $226 million upfront and up to $855 million in future milestones and royalty payments for exclusive rights to Debiopharm’s IAP candidate xevinapant, which recently emerged from Phase II in first-line, non-metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, the German firm said Monday.

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UP­DAT­ED: Biotech's shares rout­ed af­ter the FDA de­mands new tri­al, rais­es safe­ty and end­point is­sues in sur­prise CRL

A small biotech that’s been laboring long and hard on an oral chemo program for metastatic breast cancer was slammed hard on Monday morning, losing more than half of its market cap after revealing that the FDA had issued a surprise CRL with some harsh new hurdles in place.

Athenex $ATNX says that regulators stiff-armed its application for oral paclitaxel and encequidar — a marked setback after winning a priority review earlier that should have signified a more positive regulatory frame of mind. And Athenex was clear that any comeback for this program is going to face a high bar at the FDA.

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An­gling Pfiz­er, As­traZeneca jumps in­to com­mer­cial PD-(L)1 fight in Chi­na

Is a Big Pharma commercial showdown brewing in China’s PD-(L)1 market?

Months after Pfizer outlined a sprawling $200 million pact with CStone partly to market its experimental PD-L1 in China, AstraZeneca is wading into the same waters by lassoing certain commercial rights to toripalimab from Junshi Biosciences.

Notably, both have their own checkpoint drugs. But unlike Pfizer’s Bavencio, AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi is actually approved in China for unresectable non-small cell lung cancer. And in toripalimab, the British drugmaker is scoring a more mature drug that earned China’s first-ever approval for a homegrown PD-1 back in 2018.

UP­DAT­ED: Feds clear the road for J&J to start de­liv­er­ing mil­lions of dos­es of their Covid-19 vac­cine — but frets linger about run­ner-up sta­tus

All the pieces needed to trigger a third wave of Covid-19 vaccine supply to start washing over the US fell neatly into place over the weekend.

After providing for a brief mime of regulatory judiciousness, the FDA stamped their emergency approval on J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine Saturday, adding to the Biden administration’s plan aimed at ending the pandemic in the near term — at least in the US. The CDC came through on Sunday with its stamp of approval and J&J is reportedly expected to start delivering vaccine sometime in the next few days.

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