GV steps up to back Tillman Gerngross’ new antibody play against Covid-19 — and he’s already thinking about the IPO
Tillman Gerngross had two good reasons to celebrate on Monday.
First, he felt that Pfizer’s upbeat assessment of its pivotal Covid-19 vaccine data marked an unprecedented breakthrough in the speed of vaccine development and a “big day” for science as a whole.
Second, he was ready to offer me a preview of an $80 million round designed to propel his new biotech startup — Adagio Therapeutics — toward an IPO next year as it ramps up what he believes can be a contender for the most powerful antibody available to combat a virus that has repeatedly rattled the globe with waves of rising infection and death rates.
Gerngross may not be the first antibody developer to jump into the fray, or the second, but he still has characteristically large ambitions for his first molecule, which is being prepped for the clinic in January as his team readies trials both as a prophylaxis to prevent infection as well as a therapy.
This time, he not only brought together his existing team of venture backers — Polaris Partners, Mithril Capital, Fidelity Management & Research Company, and OrbiMed — he added Krishna Yeshwant at Google’s GV as the lead investor along with Population Health Partners and Omega Funds.
The plan now, he tells me, is to move on from this financing round to another quick-step raise early next year “and then probably take the company public.”
There’s a longterm plan, he says, but right now the focus is all on Covid-19 and the pandemic upon us. The IND is on schedule to arrive in December. The Phase I can run in January, with Phase II initiation in February and pivotal data before the end of 2021.
“I think this is a big day for science,” the scientist told me hours after the Pfizer pronouncement hit. “Within less than a year we have some efficacy data in humans; this is unprecedented.” It took longer than that to figure out what caused AIDS.
But while Monday’s pivotal release ahead of safety data marked a major advance, Tillman — like most others in the now crowded field of pandemic R&D — sees opportunities for more and better.
“The question marks that I have, and we’ve seen it from Pfizer’s own data, is that the neutralizing antibody titers wane very quickly,” he adds. “How that plays out in terms of duration of response, we just don’t know.”
On the antibody side, meanwhile, two of the leaders — Eli Lilly and Regeneron — have both had to deal with deflated expectations after running into weak responses, particularly among the most severe patients. That didn’t surprise Gerngross, who already decided to forego that test.
Looking past the pandemic, Gerngross’s backers are intrigued by Adagio’s work related to “a highly conserved epitope on the spike protein of beta-coronaviruses that target human ACE2,” a target they believe can play a role in fighting new viruses as they mutate and emerge — a hot topic in the newly revived field of pandemic preparedness.
“There’s a lot more work to be done,” says Gerngross, who’s hired a team approaching the 40 mark with plans for lots more recruiting to come. “We’re going to see some real traction over the next year.”