West Coast Biotech Roundup: Audentes, Fate, Zosano & More

Xconomy National — 

When 23andMe said Wednesday it had raised $115 million in a new venture capital round, Reuters reported that the round implied a total valuation of $1.1 billion for the genomics company—making 23andMe a new member of the rare and wondrous (and growing) unicorn club. (The Wall Street Journal has listed the Mountain View, CA-based company on its billion-dollar startup list since June, and CB Insights added 23andMe to its unicorn list in July, but no matter.)

Silicon Valley’s technorati define “unicorn” as a private technology startup valued at more than $1 billion, and 2015 is already a record year for newborn unicorns. Of the 142 companies on CB Insights’ global unicorn list, 66 were added in the first nine months of 2015 (including companies like Lynda.com, which became a unicorn before exiting). According to CB Insights’ latest report, the 66 new unicorns include 39 U.S.-based companies.

But unicorns aren’t just for tech companies any more. There are now 10 life sciences companies on CB Insights’ list, including Theranos (valued at $9 billion, with some controversy here), Intarcia Therapeutics ($5.5B), Stemcentrx ($3B), Moderna ($2B), and NantHealth ($2B).

Xconomy’s Alex Lash has argued, “Biotechs, being the home of disciplined scientists (we hope), should have a more reality-based buzzword. From here on out, billion-dollar biotechs are snow leopards, and the preclinical ones that manage an IPO are coelacanths—so rare that people once thought they only existed millions of years ago.”

In a note yesterday, he adds, “When you study biology and chemistry all day instead of trying to create the next reality distortion field, you tend not to put much stock in mythological life forms.”

In other life sciences news:

—San Francisco’s Audentes Therapeutics, which is focused on commercializing gene therapy products for serious and rare diseases, said Tuesday it raised $65 million in a Series C financing led by Sofinnova Ventures, an existing investor, Redmile Group, a new investor. Audentes said proceeds would be used mostly to advance its three lead development programs and to establish internal manufacturing capabilities.

LeafBio, the commercial arm of San Diego’s Mapp Biopharmaceutical, said today the European Medicines Agency has given the Ebola drug ZMapp its “Orphan Medicinal Product Designation.” The agency uses the designation to encourage the development of drugs and other products targeting rare diseases with no existing cure or treatment. The designation provides such benefits as protocol assistance and market exclusivity.

—A new Global Health Vaccine Center of Innovation will be housed at Seattle’s Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI). The center, with funding from Sanofi Psteur and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to accelerate vaccine development for global infectious disease, and to ensure their accessibility. The center also plans to collaborate with other vaccine developers.

—The human genome pioneer J. Craig Venter invited VIPs and reporters to tour Health Nucleus, a new business venture that uses whole genome sequencing, microbiome sequencing, advanced medical imaging, and other diagnostics for elite, self-paying customers. The proposal triggered some skepticism among the Twitterati; you can follow their comments here.

—The biotech accelerator IndieBio says it’s enrolling a new class of 15 startups at its downtown San Francisco headquarters. The companies span consumer biotech, food, medicine, and research tools, working in areas such as T-cell sequencing, cancer cell imaging, and bioengineered olive plants.

—San Diego’s Fate Therapeutics (NASDAQ: FATE) said Monday that CEO Christian Weyer has resigned, effective Nov. 30. Fate co-founder Scott Wolchko was named to succeed him. In other organizational changes, CTO Daniel Shoemaker was named chief scientific officer, and Stewart Abbot, who joined Fate earlier this year as vice president of translational research, was named chief development officer.

Zosano Pharma (NASDAQ: ZSAN) of Fremont, CA, reported positive Phase 2 data for its experimental skin patch, designed to reverse hypoglycemia in adults with Type 1 diabetes. The company hopes to move the patch into a Phase 3 trial next year that could lead to FDA approval as an alternative to self-injection.

—The late-stage failure of the anti-cholesterol drug evacetrapib from Eli Lilly turned a spotlight on the West Coast to Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN) of Thousand Oaks, CA. Amgen bought a drug in the same class as evacetrapib—what’s known as a CETP inhibitor—from Dezima Pharma last month for $300 million upfront. The Amgen deal was a target of criticism even before Lilly’s bad news because the CETP class includes the monumental failure of Pfizer’s torcetrapib nearly a decade ago.

—The Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle said it has chosen six scientists in the U.S. and Australia as “next generation leaders,” a program that mentors prospective scientific leaders.

—The work done by biomedical research institutes in San Diego makes a big impact in the local economy, according to a study released this week by the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. The report found that nonprofit research institutes like the Salk Institute generate direct economic benefits in San Diego of $4.6 billion a year. Indirect benefits include more than 100,000 biomedical industry jobs and $14 billion in broader economic effects.

—San Diego’s BioNano Genomics said it has entered a research collaboration with the UCLA that will look at the role structural variations play in human genetic pediatric disorders.

—San Diego-based Astute Medical signed an agreement with the Shanghai Fosun Long March Medicine Science Co to distribute its NephroCheck test in China. The Chinese company also made a $20 million investment in Astute Medical.

NuVasive (NASDAQ: NUVA), the San Diego spinal device specialist, said federal regulators cleared its cervical corpectomy cage, an expandable system to replace a diseased or damaged part of the spinal vertebrae caused by tumors, fractures or bone infections.