Deals, People

Little Dragonfly bursts onto the I/O scene with a $33M Celgene deal and some of the biggest names in biotech

For a little biotech that’s been keeping a very low profile, Dragonfly has some very big names behind it. This morning, it also has a big partner you definitely have heard of — Celgene — stepping in with a sizable preclinical upfront for a deal that will certainly put this group on the industry map as one to watch.

Tyler Jacks

Celgene is fronting a 5-year collaboration pact with a $33 million payment to Cambridge, MA-based Dragonfly Therapeutics. Milestones? I’m assuming they’re plentiful, given the early stage of the deal, but no one wants to say right now. And that’s the way this biotech rolls, as we saw just weeks ago when Celgene jumped in to a syndicate to back an unspecified round for this upstart — demonstrating the big biotech’s appetite for a piece of the equity in the companies it partners with.

Dragonfly is the creation of three primary co-founders.

There’s Tyler Jacks, an MIT professor, HHMI investigator and director of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, who you don’t see routinely starting new biotechs.

Bill Haney, an entrepreneur and film maker with close contacts to the Cambridge/Boston biotech hub, is at the helm.

And then there’s Berkeley’s David Raulet, whose background as an expert in NK cells and tumor immunology helps spotlight some of the big ideas the little team of 15 is pursuing at Dragonfly.

“Big impact, big value, small team,” is how Haney describes the strategy to me at this stage of the game. We talked on Sunday, ahead of the announcement.

Bill Haney

Rather than go the traditional VC route, Haney, his longtime friend Tim Disney (yes, that Disney family) and Sean Reilly, the CEO at Lamar Advertising, seeded the company themselves. With the latest financing and deal cash in the bank, Haney says he has a clear 9-year runway to operate.

You don’t see 9-year runways in biotech. Haney readily concedes that’s a conservative game plan.

Dragonfly is staying humble about its profile, but there’s nothing low-key about what this company hopes to accomplish. Dragonfly has been working on new technology to leapfrog where checkpoint therapies are right now. By linking onto NK (natural killer) cells and dragging them to a cancer cell, they think they have a better approach to tackling a wide range of cancers. That drug design in turn, says Haney, should also recruit regular T cells to mob cancer cells, amplifying the effect.

It’s not original. Patrick Soon-Shiong’s extensive biotech organization has the same thing in mind. But Jacks and Raulet think they have something new and vital here.

Celgene, which takes over the clinical work, believes the same thing.

David Raulet

Haney tells me that the company plans to set up a few more partnerships with pharma, completing a process that will leave it with its own pipeline of drugs to take through the clinic.

Over the last few months, Dragonfly has also been recruiting new staff and a full complement of scientific advisers. Nobel prize winner Harold Varmus heads the scientific advisory board.

“Essentially,” says Haney, “we have a long series of drug candidates were building, some for Celgene, some for us, some for other partners.”

When will Dragonfly get its first drug in the clinic?

Haney isn’t saying. But we’ll be watching closely.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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