Neuro upstart launches out of RA Capital’s low-profile incubator with Big Pharma vets, clinical drugs and $80M
As a pain researcher of 20-plus years, Valerie Morisset doesn’t get excited about new drug ideas easily.
So when Andrew Levin from RA Capital called to talk about a prodrug of the endocannabinoid palmitoylethanolamide, she was skeptical. Morisset had just swapped out a career in biotech — most recently heading up biology and translational medicine for Convergence Pharmaceuticals through its acquisition by Biogen — for a VC perch at Bridge Valley Ventures , and together with Simon Tate, the managing director of Intermediate Capital Group, they dived in for three months of due diligence.
“At first, it is true, our intent was to basically kill it and move along to the next opportunity,” she told Endpoints News.
Rather, she would become the president and CSO of Eliem, the startup tasked with steering this — ETX-810 — and three other neuro drugs to the finish line with $80 million in fresh funding.
Bob Azelby, the former chief commercial officer at Juno and and recent chief of Alder who helped negotiate a $1.95 billion buyout by Lundbeck, is on board as CEO, leading an office in Seattle while Morisset manages an R&D team in Cambridge, UK. A clinical development crew is also based in the US, where all trials are currently planned.
Endocannabinoids — endogenous neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors — had enthused Big Pharma for some years, sending them off on a search for CB2 agonists, peripheral CB1 or others, but the efforts have largely turned up empty, if not outright dangerous. Others have tried going after a master modulator instead.
PEA, as Morisset already knew, is part of this group. What she was surprised to find, though, was the “absolute wealth” of clinical literature on using the naturally occurring molecule in a number of chronic pain conditions. After asking a professor at the University of Rome to reanalyze data from one of the biggest studies available and confirm a dose-response relationship between the exposure of PEA and the reduction of pain, they were convinced.
Taking a prodrug approach, she noted, confers a three-fold higher exposure, a longer half life, and better drug properties overall. They will first test it in two Phase IIa trials for lumbosacral radicular pain (chronic sciatica) and diabetic peripheral neuropathic pain.
But Eliem wants to be more than a pain company; the focus they’re giving themselves is neuronal excitability disorders, which could be anything from depression to epilepsy.
The common theme of these diseases is that they arise from an imbalance between excitation and inhibition, noted Morisset, an electrophysiologist by background.
“There is a lot of literature describing pain, epilepsy as hyperexcitability disorders where basically neurons are firing too fast,” she added.
ETX-155, a next-generation GABAA positive allosteric modulator also from RA Capital, is now in Phase I trials with plans to go into mid-stage studies for major depressive disorder, hormone-related mood disorders and focal onset seizures. Then there’s a preclinical Kv7.⅔ channel opener discovered in house and another early-stage research program.
Alder alum Erin Lavelle is taking up the COO post, while pharma vets Amy Chappell and Jo Palmer-Phillips are filling the chief medical officer and chief development officer positions, respectively. Levin, who is credited as co-founder alongside Morisset, is chairing the board of directors, which also involves Tate of ICG and Liam Ratcliffe from Access Biotechnology, the two investors who joined RA Capital for the Series A.
“When you have a really experienced team with clinically validated mechanism of action, it’s a lot about execution,” Azelby said, “making sure that you’re getting the right trial set up and execute the right trial.”
It’s not just about the technical skills, either. As Eliem grows from the current headcount of 18 to 25 or 30 by the end of the year, Azelby said a key attribute he will be looking for in recruitment is resilience.
“You gotta get people that are coming here and understand that, you know what? The boat may rock a little bit right because biology,” he said. “And you want those folks that get excited when an issue arises so they can dig in and solve it.”