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.
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.
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.
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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