One of the best connected biotech startups in Boston snags a plum discovery deal with Novartis
Novartis’ drug discovery crew inside the NIBR campus in Cambridge, MA is putting $30 million on the table to get a new TCR immuno-oncology program kicked off with one of the recent startups to debut in the field — serious money for what they believe can offer an effective approach to tackling solid tumors.
Christoph Westphal’s latest biotech creation, TScan, lined up the deal, which drew in a Novartis crew attracted by their approach in developing TCR-engineered T cell therapies.
Waltham, MA-based TScan obtained the IP — including the high throughput screening platform and a number of post-doc staffers — from the lab of Harvard Med School professor Steve Elledge, which promises to identify shared T cell antigens in a way that also promises to narrow the field to cells without any off-target issues that can raise safety questions. That’s a key distinguishing factor from the pioneers in TCRs, like Adaptimmune, which ran into early safety issues with MAGEA3.
“Our central philosophy is learning from patients,” says CEO David Southwell. “Taking cells and using them to treat patients.” And it’s an approach that they’re using in-house on liquid tumors while Novartis shoots for solid tumors. Southwell’s 40-strong team is also applying the tech to Covid-19.
But this story is as much about people as it is technology.
Lea Hachigian, a scientist with a PhD from MIT and a principal at Westphal’s Longwood Fund, played a key role in bringing the company together. Her husband, Tomasz Kula, was working in Elledge’s lab on the TCR effort. Hachigian, the founding president at TScan, got Westphal involved, says Southwell, and then Westphal did what he does best in bringing together an experienced management team.
There’s Southwell, who traces his biotech career back through a CEO stint at Rocket, a CFO run at Human Genome Sciences and on back to his investment banking days at Lehman Brothers. With a resume like that, it’s no surprise to hear him talk about the prospects of a crossover round and eventual IPO, when the timing is right. For now, this company is very much a preclinical play.
Gavin MacBeath, a co-founder at Merrimack, is CSO at the company. He also has some deep roots in the business that go back to Harvard and a PhD from Scripps.
Their first 2 rounds at TScan brought in $60 million from an A list group of investors. NIBR came in on the Series B, alongside Pitango Venture Capital, Astellas Venture Management, 6 Dimensions Capital, Longwood Fund, Bessemer Venture Partners, GV (the VC formerly known as Google Ventures), and Novartis Venture Fund. The money from NIBR includes $20 million for the upfront and $10 million to cover research costs.
Westphal has had his share of mistakes in recent years. Flex Pharma became a burned out shell that was tossed off in a reverse merger gambit following their clinical failure. And Verastem cratered as the original oncology plan failed, forcing a switch to a PI3K discard from Infinity.
Westphal also engineered the still controversial $720 million sale of Sirtris’ longevity effort to GSK, where it ultimately migrated to and then disappeared under the surface of the giant’s large R&D ops. But the setbacks have been largely forgiven and he remains one of the best connected biotech execs in Cambridge/Boston, still boasting of playing the role of founding CEO at RNAi pioneer Alnylam.
Eventually one of his other startups may hit. It’s time for TScan to take the next shot.