Fra­zier backs MavuPhar­ma’s $20M round, brings in heavy­weight ex­ecs to lead

Ven­ture part­ners at Fra­zier have put to­geth­er a dream team from their ex­ec­u­tive rolodex to a lead a new start­up called MavuPhar­ma. The new ven­ture is un­wrap­ping a $20 mil­lion Se­ries A to­day, along with plans to de­vel­op an in­creas­ing­ly pop­u­lar path­way in on­col­o­gy.

The com­pa­ny’s founders and board mem­bers in­clude names you’ve like­ly seen be­fore — Bob Bal­tera, Rich Hey­man, Michael Gal­latin, and Greg Di­etsch. These guys are se­r­i­al life sci­ence founders, and they’ve all worked to­geth­er on past ven­tures. They al­so have ties to Fra­zier Health­care Part­ners, which led the round.

Michael Gal­latin

Gal­latin and Di­etsch worked on the same lead­er­ship team at ICOS, the com­pa­ny that de­vel­oped Cialis. Since then, Gal­latin has co-found­ed Cal­is­to­ga (ac­quired by Gilead for $600 mil­lion) and Stromedix (ac­quired by Bio­gen).

Mavu (pro­nounced “maw-vu”) is tech­ni­cal­ly based in Seat­tle, but the team is spread across the coun­try. Gal­latin tells me the com­pa­ny will like­ly stay “se­mi-vir­tu­al,” with the new cash go­ing to­wards pre­clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment rather than salaries and ben­e­fits.

Bub­bling in­ter­est in STING

Mavu is work­ing on pro­grams for drugs that mod­u­late the STING path­way to treat can­cer and in­fec­tious dis­ease. STING (which stands for “stim­u­la­tor of in­ter­fer­on genes”) is gain­ing at­ten­tion in the in­dus­try, with com­pa­nies like Aduro pur­su­ing it for its ap­pli­ca­tions in can­cer. The hope is that fid­dling with STING can in­duce an im­mune re­sponse that shrinks or wipes out tu­mors.

“There’s been an ex­plo­sion in the lit­er­a­ture over the past few years, and its ac­cel­er­at­ed in the last few months with pa­pers on STING pub­lish­ing in Na­ture, Cell, and Sci­ence,” said Gal­latin, Mavu’s co-founder and pres­i­dent. “There’s tons of in­ter­est in this path­way.”

Most com­pa­nies are in­ject­ing the STING ag­o­nist com­pounds di­rect­ly in­to tu­mors. Mavu has dif­fer­ent plans, fo­cus­ing on de­vel­op­ing oral drugs that are con­di­tion­al ag­o­nists — mean­ing they on­ly ac­ti­vate the path­way in the con­text of a tu­mor.

“These are com­pounds that don’t ac­ti­vate STING sys­tem­i­cal­ly as a di­rect ag­o­nist could,” Gal­latin said.

First comes cash, then comes the board

As part of Mavu’s new fi­nanc­ing round, the com­pa­ny got new board mem­bers: Bal­tera, Hey­man, and Fra­zier’s man­ag­ing gen­er­al part­ner Jamie Top­per.

Bob Bal­tera

Bal­tera, an en­tre­pre­neur-in-res­i­dence at Fra­zier, is one of VC firm’s go-to ex­ecs to lead their star­tups. He’s cur­rent­ly head­ing up Cir­ius Ther­a­peu­tics, which just launched with $40 mil­lion ear­li­er this year. Be­fore that, he had a brief stint at Fra­zier-backed La­gu­na, where he raised $30 mil­lion be­fore the com­pa­ny quick­ly fold­ed this April due to safe­ty is­sues.

“In this busi­ness, sci­ence will go against you more of­ten than not,” Bal­tera told me at the time. “A lot of peo­ple want to keep the fund­ing and move for­ward. But the sci­ence wasn’t as ad­ver­tised. Rather than drag­ging our feet or throw­ing a hail Mary pass — and spend­ing mil­lions from our in­vestors in the process — we de­cid­ed to shut it down quick­ly and find some­thing new.”

Fra­zier clear­ly didn’t hold it against him. The firm has now ap­point­ed Bal­tera chair­man of Mavu’s board.

Once in, Bal­tera prompt­ly brought in Hey­man to the board. Here in San Diego, Hey­man’s a bit of a leg­end for two enor­mous fi­nan­cial suc­cess­es. He co-found­ed Aragon Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, which sold in 2013 for up to $1 bil­lion to John­son & John­son. With the as­sets of Aragon that he didn’t sell, Hey­man found­ed Ser­agon Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, which sold in 2014 to Genen­tech for up to $1.7 bil­lion.

Next steps

Gal­latin said Mavu hasn’t pub­licly pre­sent­ed any in­for­ma­tion or da­ta about its pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams, as the field is hot with com­pe­ti­tion.

“I’ll just say we’ve been quite suc­cess­ful in the evo­lu­tion of our com­pounds,” Gal­latin said.

Bal­tera says Mavu will be shoot­ing for IND by 2019. At that time, the com­pa­ny will con­sid­er rais­ing a larg­er Se­ries B round or part­ner­ing the tech.

“We don’t have any pre­con­ceived no­tion of where this will go,” Bal­tera said. “We’re just go­ing to stay nim­ble and when the da­ta comes in, we’ll do what­ev­er makes sense. Every­one on this team has worked for pri­vate com­pa­nies, pub­lic com­pa­nies, and they’ve sold com­pa­nies. So we’re ag­nos­tic when it comes to the out­come.”

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As oncology sponsors look internationally to speed-up trials after unprecedented COVID-19 suspensions and delays, Australia, which has led the world in minimizing the pandemic’s impact, stands out as an attractive destination for early phase trials. This in combination with the streamlined regulatory system and the financial benefits including a very favourable exchange rate and the R & D cash rebate makes Australia the perfect location for accelerating biotech clinical programs.

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