Synthetic biology biotech nets three-hit combo in new financing, Bristol Myers deal and first CSO
A Bay Area biotech announced three new developments that have been in the works in recent months, hoping that all have a strong chance at propelling the company forward.
The first and newest development is the financing, as Octant — headed up by former UCLA professor Sri Kosuri and founded in 2017 — raised $80 million in a Series B round. It’s the biotech’s largest round to date, and more than doubles all its past fundraising combined, bringing its total financing so far to $115 million. Kosuri told Endpoints News that the funding gives Octant, which currently has around 50 employees, a cash runway of two to three years.
While the round was led by biotech VC Catalio Capital Management, previous and new investors hopped onto the round, including Bristol Myers Squibb, Allen & Co., 50 Years VC and Andreessen Horowitz Bio Fund.
As for what the company plans to do with that money, co-founders Kosuri and Ramsey Homsany said that their goal is three-pronged over the next few years: push their two leading drug candidates into the clinic, scale the size and capability of their platform anywhere from five- to tenfold and start developing another five to 10 new drug candidates.
So far, Octant’s two lead candidates, still in preclinical development, go after autosomal dominant retinitis pigmentosa — a rare form of blindness marked by damage to the retina — and receptors linked to metabolism and obesity, respectively. Kosuri said that Octant has no definitive timeframe for when it expects to have the drugs in clinical trials.
Octant’s platform focuses on synthetic biology, engineering small molecules and testing them through human cell lines, biological assays and machine learning software.
Secondly, Bristol Myers decided to team up with Octant in a multi-year collaboration deal. While Kosuri declined to give financial specifics, it had been in the works for close to a year and was finalized in December. Kosuri added that the deal was unrelated to Bristol Myers’ investment in the aforementioned Series B.
The partnership with Bristol Myers is using Octant’s technology to, as Kosuri put it, systematically test thousands of amino acids in human cell lines, going through as many mutations as possible. Octant and Bristol Myers will apply the technology to a set of unspecified immunology targets.
And the final change for the biotech is on the personnel side. Octant brought on its first chief scientific officer, Rick Artis, and added biochemist Feng Zhang to its scientific advisory board. Artis, who originally started out as a researcher at Syntex and Genentech, worked at Elan, Chorum and Annexon before coming to Octant Bio. Kosuri told Endpoints that Octant wanted Artis’s expertise in computational chemistry.
“We definitely wanted more drug development expertise in the company. You know, we clearly needed it, especially as the molecules that we were running in early discovery days are kind of moving towards larger animal studies and moving towards the clinic. But we also wanted someone with expertise in this new kind of small molecule and drug discovery platform,” Kosuri said.
The CEO added that Artis got connected with Octant through Mark Murcko, the founding CSO at Dewpoint Therapeutics. Murcko also happens to be on the board at Octant, and knew Artis through grad school, with both of them getting their PhDs at Yale in organic chemistry.
Kosuri also said he and Zhang have known each other for a few years — and Kosuri thought that Zhang would be a great addition to Octant’s synthetic biology work and help guide the company forward in that space.