Startups play a critical role in the innovation economy that we chronicle at Xconomy—transforming new ideas that begin in a lab into the products and companies of tomorrow. No surprise, then, that the startup category in our first-ever Awards program was a particularly competitive one, loaded with private companies (no more than 5 years old) in several biotech hotspots: gene editing, microbiome research, immuno-oncology, regenerative medicine, digital health and more. Here are brief introductions to our six startup finalists.
First up is eGenesis, one of the latest startups tied to the work of Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church (Church is one of our judges but is not judging this category). eGenesis wants to engineer pigs to grow organs and tissues that can be transplanted into humans. The concept, known as ‘xenotransplantation,’ has been around for more than century, but safety issues have held it back: The human immune system would likely attack animal organs and the transplants can carry potentially harmful animal viruses. eGenesis thinks it can make xenotransplantation safer—and help alleviate the shortage of donor organs —by using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology to inactivate a type of these viruses, called PERVs, in pigs. Church, co-founder and CRISPR pioneer Luhan Yang, and the eGenesis team showed in a paper in Science last week that they could use the approach to clone new pigs that did not have the viruses. The company also raised a $38 million Series A round earlier this year.
Gene editing is also the focus of Homology Medicines, but it wants to one-up CRISPR drug developers with a different gene-editing method that, it believes, might be safer than other strategies. To prove it, Homology is developing newer, different versions of viruses called AAVs, which are often used in gene therapy to deliver new genes into cells. Homology’s AAVs are designed to edit DNA using homologous recombination—a natural DNA repair mechanism in cells. The process doesn’t use the enzymes that CRISPR uses to cut DNA, which Homology believes makes their approach less risky than other gene-editing methods. Homology’s scientific founder, Saswati Chatterjee of the Beckman Institute of City of Hope in California, and her team discovered the specific AAVs, which the firm says are able to efficiently and precisely insert genes according to preclinical data. Earlier this month, the company raised $83.5 million, meaning the company has secured a total of $127 million in financing since 2016.
While eGenesis and Homology are trying to push the limits of gene editing, Veritas Genetics, another startup from Church’s lab, is pushing down the cost of genome sequencing. Experts have long predicted that the cost of sequencing a human genome would drop down to $1,000—a price point that some say will make the service more accessible to consumers. Last year, Veritas became the first company to hit that mark, offering whole genome sequencing, interpretation, and genetic counseling for $999. Earlier this month, Veritas broadened its ambitions, acquiring yet another Church startup, Curoverse—the bioinformatics company behind Harvard’s Personal Genome Project—as part of a plan to use machine learning to scale up and analyze hundreds of thousands to millions of genomes. Veritas nabbed $30 million in Series B financing in 2016.
Cancer immunotherapy is white hot these days, and that was abundantly clear by the slew of immuno-oncology firms readers nominated. Dragonfly Therapeutics, however, stood out for its notable scientific power and unusual—and classically Boston—startup story. The company was created out of the labs of MIT cancer research pioneer Tyler Jacks and David Raulet, a UC Berkeley immunologist. They are funded not by venture firms, but by a small, unusual group of family offices, including one associated with the Disney family. Jacks co-founded Dragonfly with Raulet, whom he met at MIT 20 years ago, and Bill Haney, a tech entrepreneur, filmmaker, and a college roommate of Jacks. Haney got involved after hearing about the idea from Jacks while at a Red Sox game with him at Fenway Park. The company aims to harness natural killer cells, a key member of the innate immune system (the body’s first line defense), to fight cancer. It already has a wide-ranging, $33 million alliance in place with Celgene.
Bacteria are growing increasingly resistant to antibiotics, a potential public health crisis that cranks up the pressure on the life sciences sector to step in with some new solutions. One young firm trying to provide multiple answers to the “superbug” problem is Spero Therapeutics. Through a series of acquisitions and other deals, the company is building an armamentarium of experimental bug-killing weapons. One, for instance, doesn’t destroy bacteria on its own, but instead disrupts the outer membrane of tough-to-drug Gram-negative bacteria so they’re susceptible to antibiotics. Another is a broad-spectrum antibiotic, meaning it can take on several different pathogens. Spero just raised $51.7 million this year, and $110 million in total since its 2014 inception. After that raise, CEO Ankit Mahadevia mentioned Spero might seek an IPO in the future. It wouldn’t be a surprise.
Filling prescriptions for specialty medicines, such as the biologic drugs often used to treat complex diseases, can be a nightmare. The process can take days or weeks and often gets bogged down in paperwork between healthcare providers, pharmacies and patients. Startup ZappRx says its website and mobile app make the whole process faster and more efficient. Founder and CEO Zoe Barry has raised about $41 million in venture funding since 2012, and the company’s technology is now being used by specialty practices and medical centers in Massachusetts, Arizona, and California. A $25 million Series B round in April brought GV in as an investor, and the cash to try to roll out ZappRx’s services nationwide.