Startups, Venture

NEA, 5AM back a $50M play to steer gene therapies to the clinic at Akouos — the latest startup in hearing

Hearing is getting to be a trendy R&D topic in biotech.

Eight months after putting together a $7.5 million seed round and lining up AAV gene therapy technology out of Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Lonza, the startup Akouos has come back with a fast $50 million A round designed to get them through their preclinical phase and up to the threshold of their first human study.

Michael McKenna

Initially focused on a rare genetic mutation that leads to deafness in newborns, Akouos CEO Manny Simons tells me that the biotech has its eyes on a lineup of monogenetic ailments related to hearing. And they’re looking to restore hearing with a pipeline of therapies, eventually expanding into broader causes of hearing loss for an aging society.

“Where we’ve been focused is making sure we are able to deliver vector to sensory cells throughout the cochlea in the human ear,” the shell-like sphere where vibrations become sound, says Simons, a biotech vet with stints at Voyager — another gene therapy specialist — and Warp Dive. This is his first turn running a biotech, and his background helped him line up a major league crew of backers.

Arthur Tzianabos

5AM and New Enterprise Associates led the round, with Partners Innovation Fund stepping in with new investors:Sofinnova Ventures, RA Capital Management and Novartis Venture Fund.

Like most startups, the CEO at Akouos is staying quiet about their first target for now. But after having time to explore their tech in animal models, including non-human primates, he’s also eager to note that their first program puts them in the opening stages of exploring a field with 150 monogenetic triggers for hearing loss.

Christopher Smith

Akouos is joining a relatively small but growing group of drug developers focused on hearing in a world where deafness is becoming increasingly common.

Not far from where Akouos makes its home, Decibel has been pursuing its own approach to building a tech platform for new drugs to restore lost hearing. Just weeks ago Steve Holtzman and his crew pieced together a $55 million C round — though they’re developing a pipeline of compounds. Just this morning Frequency Therapeutics spotlighted a move into a Phase I/II study for a hearing restoration drug. A host of academic groups, meanwhile, have been looking to deliver a gene therapy for hearing via a vector — as that field steadily deepens its roots following a landmark approval for Spark.

Simons is expanding his team with the new money. One of his scientific founders at Harvard, Michael McKenna, is coming on as chief medical officer. And he has some familiar biotech/venture execs joining the board: Arthur Tzianabos, the CEO of Homology Medicines, and Christopher Smith, former CEO of Cochlear.


Image: Manny Simons. HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL via YOUTUBE


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