Go­ing big: Biotech vets blast off with Ar­rakis on a new jour­ney of RNA ex­plo­ration


Michael Gilman and an ex­pe­ri­enced band of biotech vets are bust­ing out of stealth mode to­day with a start­up that marks the se­r­i­al en­tre­pre­neur’s third launch in 10 years. And he’s com­ing out in style, with a $38 mil­lion A round led by Canaan Part­ners.

Af­ter lit­er­al­ly stum­bling across the com­pa­ny while it was still in the white-board phase of de­vel­op­ment in 2015, Gilman says he was ripe for the chal­lenge and ad­ven­ture. And it’s a big one.

CSO and founder Russ Pet­ter has been hon­ing the bioin­for­mat­ics tools, as­says and chem­i­cal li­braries Ar­rakis Ther­a­peu­tics will need to cre­ate a plat­form tech­nol­o­gy that can be used to de­vel­op small mol­e­cules to in­hib­it dis­ease-caus­ing RNA.

This biotech has a long jour­ney ahead in pre­clin­i­cal work be­fore it can start try­ing this out in hu­mans. But if they’re right, the com­pa­ny will be on their way to work­ing on oral ther­a­pies that would be able to hunt down a host of what had been con­sid­ered un­drug­gable tar­gets — start­ing with an ini­tial aim at neu­rol­o­gy and can­cer.

Most pre­clin­i­cal star­tups like this come out of acad­e­mia. But this is a unique­ly Cam­bridge-based out­fit, bring­ing to­geth­er peo­ple with decades of ex­pe­ri­ence right in the heart of one of the world’s biggest biotech hubs.

“I’ve known Russ for a long time,” says Gilman, whose CV in­ter­sects with the founder’s stint at Bio­gen. “He ran chem­istry when I ran re­search there. He’s been work­ing on this for awhile.”

And Pet­ters isn’t the on­ly oth­er Bio­gen vet on board. Chief Busi­ness Of­fi­cer Daniel Ko­er­w­er and James Bar­soum, SVP of bi­ol­o­gy, al­so trace their ca­reers back to the Cam­bridge, MA gi­ant. Col­lec­tive­ly, they list stints at more than a dozen dif­fer­ent biotech com­pa­nies on their re­sumes.

Gilman crossed paths with Pet­ter in 2015, when the fel­low sci­en­tist was hatch­ing his plans for Ar­rakis — a com­pa­ny named af­ter the plan­et in Frank Her­bert’s Dune — in some shared of­fice space where Gilman had one of his board meet­ings. Pet­ter had had his in­ter­est whet­ted at a con­fer­ence pre­sen­ta­tion on small mol­e­cules and RNA in­ter­ac­tions.

They talked, Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb de­cid­ed it would pay a hand­some price for Gilman’s last com­pa­ny, Pad­lock, and af­ter tak­ing last sum­mer off, they got down to se­ri­ous­ly ex­plor­ing the idea to­geth­er.

The mon­ey fol­lowed the ideas.

Along with Canaan Part­ners, Ad­vent Life Sci­ences, Pfiz­er, Cel­gene, Os­age Uni­ver­si­ty Part­ners, and biotech in­dus­try leader Hen­ri Ter­meer chipped in to the A round. The UK’s Ad­vent and Ter­meer helped seed the ini­tial work. And if Ar­rakis’ team is right, there will be plen­ty of op­por­tu­ni­ties along the way to set up plat­form col­lab­o­ra­tions and part­ner­ships.

Colleen Cuf­faro

“I was very in­trigued from the minute I heard the con­cept,” says Colleen Cuf­faro, a prin­ci­pal at Canaan who’s tak­ing a board spot at Ar­rakis.  “It has enor­mous po­ten­tial, how it opens up a whole new space for un­drug­gable tar­gets on our radar for a long time. I re­al­ly like the ap­proach of us­ing small mol­e­cules that are fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent than any oth­er RNA-tar­get­ing ap­proach I’ve seen. The oth­er piece was the team, a re­al­ly proven team, with a track record that is out­stand­ing.”

Gilman isn’t con­cen­trat­ing sole­ly on Ar­rakis. He’s been deeply in­volved with At­las Ven­ture, and they’re plan­ning an­oth­er com­pa­ny launch lat­er in the year. But Gilman isn’t stressed by the idea of helm­ing two ven­tures at once.

At Pad­lock, says Gilman, “I felt like I had ex­tra time on my hands.” Af­ter all, CEOs of star­tups of­ten “spend a lot of time wait­ing around for stuff to hap­pen.” And if you have the kind of team he’s work­ing with at Ar­rakis, it’s not a full-time job.

This is not Gilman’s first biotech rodeo. He knows first hand that a ven­ture-backed start­up of­ten lands in oth­er hands, as hap­pened with Stromedix and Pad­lock. This time around though, he would like to take it all out much fur­ther.

“You can nev­er rule it out,” he says, “but this is a com­pa­ny I would like to see built for the long haul. I tru­ly be­lieve we’ll have the ca­pa­bil­i­ty to crank out new drugs oth­er peo­ple haven’t been able to make.”

Gilman’s a long­time be­liev­er in the adage that in biotech, you should go big or go home.

Once again, he’s go­ing big.

Tar­get­ing a Po­ten­tial Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of Cer­tain Can­cers with DNA Dam­age Re­sponse

Every individual’s DNA is unique, and because of this, every patient responds differently to disease and treatment. It is astonishing how four tiny building blocks of our DNA – A, T, C, G – dictate our health, disease, and how we age.

The tricky thing about DNA is that it is constantly exposed to damage by sources such as ultraviolet light, certain chemicals, toxins, and even natural biochemical processes inside our cells.¹ If ignored, DNA damage will accumulate in replicating cells, giving rise to mutations that can lead to premature aging, cancer, and other diseases.

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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Fol­low biotechs go­ing pub­lic with the End­points News IPO Track­er

The Endpoints News team is continuing to track IPO filings for 2021, and we’ve designed a new tracker page for the effort.

Check it out here: Biopharma IPOs 2021 from Endpoints News

You’ll be able to find all the biotechs that have filed and priced so far this year, sortable by quarter and listed by newest first. As of the time of publishing on Feb. 25, there have already been 16 biotechs debuting on Nasdaq so far this year, with an additional four having filed their S-1 paperwork.

Ken Frazier, Merck CEO (Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck takes a swing at the IL-2 puz­zle­box with a $1.85B play for buzzy Pan­dion and its au­toim­mune hope­fuls

When Roger Perlmutter bid farewell to Merck late last year, the drugmaker perhaps best known now for sales giant Keytruda signaled its intent to take a swing at early-stage novelty with the appointment of discovery head Dean Li. Now, Merck is signing a decent-sized check to bring an IL-2 moonshot into the fold.

Merck will shell out roughly $1.85 billion for Pandion Pharmaceuticals, a biotech hoping to gin up regulatory T cells (Tregs) to treat a range of autoimmune disorders, the drugmaker said Thursday.

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Per­cep­tive's fourth — yes, fourth — SPAC jumps to Nas­daq as the blank check tree con­tin­ues to ripen

The biotech SPAC boom has gone almost hand-in-hand with the industry’s IPO gold rush, and this week saw more blank check companies hop aboard the train.

Leading the way is Perceptive Advisors’ fourth SPAC, appropriately named Arya Sciences Acquisition IV, which priced Friday morning after raising $130 million. And on top of that, new Ziopharm executive chair James Huang is launching his own SPAC with MSD Partners and Panacea Venture, filing S-1 paperwork Thursday with plans to raise $200 million.

CEO Fred Aslan (Artiva)

NK cell ther­a­py play­er Arti­va makes some more noise, pulling in $120M Se­ries B less than a month af­ter Mer­ck deal

Not even one month after Big Pharma took notice of Artiva when Merck signed a collaboration worth nearly $2 billion in milestones, the off-the-shelf NK cell biotech already has its next big fundraise.

Artiva returns from the venture well Friday with a $120 million Series B round, money they will use to get their first program into the clinic and to file INDs for another two candidates. The raise marks the latest development in a rapidly expanding footprint for Artiva, which, in addition to the Merck deal last month, has now raised almost $200 million since its Series A last June.

With dust set­tled on ac­tivist at­tack, Lau­rence Coop­er leaves Zio­pharm to a new board

Laurence Cooper has done his part.

In the five years since he left a tenured position at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center to become CEO of Boston-based Ziopharm, he’s steered the small-cap immunotherapy player through patient deaths in trials, clinical holds, short attacks and, most recently, an activist attack on the board.

So when the company has “fantastic news” like an IND clearance for a TCR T cell therapy program, he’s ready to pass on the baton.

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Doug Ingram (file photo)

Why not? Sarep­ta’s third Duchenne MD drug sails to ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval

Sarepta may be running into some trouble with its next-gen gene therapy approach to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But when it comes to antisense oligonucleotides, the well-trodden regulatory path is still leading straight to an accelerated approval for casimersen, now christened Amondys 45.

We just have to wait until 2024 to find out if it works.

Amondys 45’s approval was unceremonious, compared to its two older siblings. There was no controversy within the FDA over approving a drug based on a biomarker rather than clinical benefit, setting up a powerful precedent that still haunts acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock as biotech insiders weighed her potential permanent appointment; no drama like the FDA issuing a stunning rejection only to reverse its decision and hand out an OK four months later, which got more complicated after the scathing complete response letter was published; no anxious tea leaf reading or heated arguments from drug developers and patient advocates who were tired of having corticosteroids as their loved ones’ only (sometimes expensive) option.

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Steve Cutler, Icon CEO (Icon)

In the biggest CRO takeover in years, Icon doles out $12B for PRA Health Sci­ences to fo­cus on de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal work

Contract research M&A had a healthy run in recent years before recently petering out. But with the market ripe for a big buyout and the Covid-19 pandemic emphasizing the importance of decentralized trials, Wednesday saw a tectonic shift in the CRO world.

Icon, the Dublin-based CRO, will acquire PRA Health Sciences for $12 billion in a move that will shake up the highest rungs of a fragmented market. The merger would combine the 5th- and 6th-largest CROs by 2020 revenue, according to Icon, and the merger will set the newco up to be the second-largest global CRO behind only IQVIA.

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