Three years after leaving Biogen, Alpna Seth takes the spotlight with $73M for her neuro startup
When Alpna Seth returned to the US from Europe in 2017 — where she was tasked with setting up Biogen’s biosimilars business from the ground up — she knew she was ready to leave her 19-year tenure behind and lead her own startup as CEO. Once she landed in the Bay Area, she called George Scangos, her just-retired boss.
“He said, ‘You know, I’m setting up Vir,’” she recalled. “We have a lot of money, you have experience setting up new businesses — why don’t you come join me as chief operating officer?”
By the time she left, Vir had grown to 200 staffers and acquired 3 companies to construct a pipeline months before a pandemic would strike. Despite the little detour in infectious disease, though, neurological diseases still occupied a special place in her mind as she began searching for a biotech to lead. Having spearheaded the development and commercialization of the top-selling multiple sclerosis drug Tecfidera, Seth took the “massive” need for new treatments to heart.
Nura Bio, as it turned out, was the one.
Near her 1-year anniversary with the company, Seth is pulling the curtain on the science that attracted her — plus $73 million in Series A cash to advance it in preclinical work.
Conceived by The Column Group in 2018, Nura Bio was founded on breakthroughs in axonal degeneration by Marc Freeman of Oregon Health & Science University and Steven McKnight of UT Southwestern.
“Neural cells are so interesting,” she said. Axons or nerve fibers, in particular, can be as long as a meter in some cases. “Can you imagine like one cell that long? It’s like an electric wire, so it has high action potential, and very vulnerable to damage. Axon degeneration and neuronal loss connected with that are really the early hallmarks of many peripheral, central, ocular nervous system diseases.”
So how do you halt axonal degeneration early? Freeman’s lab found the NAD hydrolase SARM1 was a axon-death factor, and knocking it out confers both structural and functional preservation.
Druggable with small molecules, the target lends itself to a “truly directly acting neuroprotective” therapy, Seth said. In a sense it’s also a teaser for the pipeline of new targets that they haven’t disclosed.
But going early in a disease — Nura hasn’t elaborated on which ones it’s going after — also means finding and convincing regulators of biomarkers that can measure the effectiveness of its drugs. That would be a key part of the work for the team of around 30 leading into the clinic, something that still lies in a somewhat distant future.
At the same time, it’s crucial groundwork for the company that Seth is looking to build: a leader answering the call to a field littered with failures and the ghosts of pharma companies that have pulled out of neuroscience. And in addition to The Column Group, she has Samsara Capital and Euclidean Capital by her side to get there.
“Our hope is that taking these novel approaches based on some recent breakthroughs in our understanding that the time is now,” she said. “We are quite hopeful, although one can never be sure until it’s fully tested.”