The new serial entrepreneur in the biotech arena launches another upstart looking to drug RNA
After a lifetime of entrepreneurship, Bill Haney has discovered how much fun it can be to set up new biotechs.
A year after launching the cancer startup Dragonfly — allying himself with MIT’s Tyler Jacks and David Raulet out of Berkeley — he’s now back with his second upstart called Skyhawk Therapeutics, which is jumping into the fast-growing new company segment focused on drugging RNA with small molecules.
“Skyhawk technology and insight offers an entirely novel way to treat a very broad class of diseases by enabling them to target mutations in exon-splicing, (targeting) loss of function diseases,” Haney tells me.
Their first project, which could be in the clinic in 2019, zeroes in on what Haney describes as a previously undruggable oncogene.
Haney — who is also a documentary filmmaker and chairman of the green home builder Blu Homes — is taking a leaf from the same playbook he used to launch Dragonfly, another Boston-area launch that has been working on new technology to leapfrog where checkpoint therapies are right now, linking onto natural killer cells and dragging them to a cancer cell to tackle a wide range of cancers.
Like Dragonfly, Haney is once again working with a tight-knit group of family office investors like his old friend Tim Disney, who’s come back in on this latest venture as well. The Duke of Bedford joined the backers club, along with Alexandria Venture Investments and other undisclosed private investors.
They’ve put up $8 million in seed cash to get things rolling at Skyhawk, which has a staff of about 25 and is on its way to its first IND and the clinic in about a year.
Like his co-investors, Haney works with people who are recognized experts in their field, and whom he trusts implicitly to do the right thing.
He first met co-founder Kathleen McCarthy back when she was a college student working with AIDS patients in a developing country. And he’s not in the least bit reluctant to praise her as a “strong minded, ferocious” young scientist out to do something completely new.
Says Haney: “I have a lot of confidence in Kathleen. I would help her in any circumstance.”
That’s the key to backing anyone in biotech, he adds: Confidence and trust. Once you get that out of the way, he adds, everyone can focus on the science.
This is the fourth biotech to come out of stealth mode with plans to drug RNA. Michael Gilman got the party started last February when he ushered Arrakis out after more than a year of quietly setting up the platform. Then at the beginning of this month Expansion Therapeutics had its coming out party, displaying a platform with R&D roots in the lab of Scripps’ Matthew Disney (not related to Tim), who’s had a longtime interest exploring the field. Ribometrix is also involved.
Skyhawk’s work is inspired by an experienced group led by McCarthy, who worked at Roche on the SMA drug RG7916 — now in pivotal trials — with a stint at the Spinal Muscular Atrophy Foundation, where she had worked on a small molecule therapeutic targeting mRNA-protein interactions for SMA.
When I talked to Haney Wednesday morning, he was in California after spending time with Jim Allison in Texas, shooting a documentary on the legendary scientist and the I/O revolution he helped spark.
With two biotechs, additional ventures and a documentary series on cancer planned, you could say Haney is staying busy. Does he have enough time to squeeze in a third start-up?
He won’t rule it out.
“It’s a maybe,” he says.
Image: Bill Haney. Dragonfly Therapeutics