Startups, Venture

Sue Dillon, Karyn O’Neil steer fledgling Aro Biotherapeutics to $13M debut — with J&J’s blessing

Sue Dillon

When news first broke that R&D heavyweights Sue Dillon and Karyn O’Neil left J&J to launch Aro Biotherapeutics, precious little was known about the company except that it’s working with a new class of antibody alternatives called Centyrins. Ten months later, the Philadelphia-based biotech has finally pulled the curtain for a better look at its tech — and the team that has since come together.

Karyn O’Neil

With a fresh $13 million in the bank, Aro is now in late-stage lead optimization for a bi-specific Centyrin that’s first being tested for advanced non-small cell lung cancer. The second program — a Centyrin-siRNA conjugate — also targets cancer, though Aro says its focus spans other “devastating diseases.”

Derek Miller

“Centyrins were conceived with the aim of simplifying the complexities of antibodies,” Dillon, the CEO and former global immunology head at Janssen, said in a statement. “This has enabled Aro scientists to rapidly create bi- and multi-specific Centyrins that are simultaneously optimized for potent anti-tumor activity and for efficient manufacture in E. coli.”

Aro seems to be an intriguing mix of two stories: the classic Big Pharma to small biotech and the spinout of a giant’s internal venture unit.

Mark Laurenzi

O’Neil’s team at Centyrex, a Janssen group, were credited with discovering Centyrin protein therapeutics. Aro owes its tech license to Centyrex (which also licensed the Centyrin platform to Fusion Pharmaceuticals and Poseida Therapeutics for derivative uses). Johnson & Johnson Innovation — JJDC provided the initial investment to get the startup off the ground; Dillon and O’Neil have also tapped Mark Laurenzi, a venture leader there, to be Aro’s VP of finance and operations.

Steven Nadler

But it is also clear that the fledgling biotech is beginning to map out a life independent of J&J. Bristol-Myers Squibb vet Steven Nadler is coming on board to lead discovery and translational research, while Derek Miller has been brought in as chief business officer and head of corporate strategy after playing similar roles at Celator, Genentech and GlaxoSmithKline. Aro has also found a home in Pennovation Center, an incubator backed by the University of Pennsylvania.

Aside from an internal pipeline in oncology and immunology, Aro will be seeking partnerships for applications of its tech in the central nervous system and muscles, according to its website.

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