Academia, Venture Capital

Illustrious Cambridge scientists join forces with $129M fund to bet on long plays in biotech

The latest tech-focused fund to set up shop in the UK features an unconventional group of partners: eight prominent scientists from Cambridge who have co-founded and put their own money into the $129 million (£100 million) fund.

Alice Newcombe-Ellis

Ahren Innovation Capital made its debut in May, leading a $30 million Series C for epigenetics-based diagnostics and therapeutics company Cambridge Epigenetix. Its future investments will lie in four overlapping fields: the brain and AI; genetics and biotechnology; space and robotics; and energy and environmental technologies, the Financial Times reported.

Shankar Balasubramanian

Shankar Balasubramanian, a pioneer in DNA sequencing, co-founded Cambridge Epigenetix and recommended that the fund invest in the company. Ahren then consulted with both its science partners and outside investors, including British insurance company Aviva, London-based Wittington Investments (known for its department store holdings) and “wealthy US families.”

“We consider it a major positive for Ahren to have privileged access to invest in the latest technologies of our successful founding science partners,” Managing Partner Alice Newcombe-Ellis — a Cambridge graduate herself in mathematics and astrophysics — told the FT.

Greg Winter

Newcombe-Ellis added that the close involvement of these well-connected scientists, the pursuit of high-risk, high-reward opportunities, and a readiness to hold investments long term differentiate Ahren from normal venture capital funds. She plans to raise a substantial amount of follow-up funding in the fall.

Steve Jackson

Aside from Balasubramanian, three of the other science partners come from the biopharma sphere: Greg Winter, an expert in monoclonal antibodies whose first biotech startup was credited with discovering the mega-blockbuster drug Humira; Steve Jackson, a researcher at the Gurdon Institute and two-time entrepreneur, including a biotech that was sold to AstraZeneca; and Venki Ramakrishnan, who shared a Nobel prize for his work on the ribosome.

Venki Ramakrishnan

“The vision of investing in companies that can really make a big impact on the world — and supporting them for the long haul — appeals to me,” Ramakrishnan, also president of Britain’s prestigious Royal Society, said to the FT. “A big problem in Britain is innovative companies selling out too quickly, usually to Americans.”

Physicist Andy Parker, astrophysicist Martin Rees, and John Daugman and Zoubin Ghahramani — eminent researchers in AI and machine learning — are the other co-founders of Ahren.

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