It’s been a question posed for years by many around the New York biotech scene: What is going on with the New York City Economic Development Corp.’s $150 million biotech fund, which was formed in 2013 but hadn’t made an investment?
Finally, today, there’s an answer. A small piece of the money from the NYCEDC’s NYC Life Sciences Fund is going to an ambitious new startup called HiberCell, which is focused on routing out the small numbers of dormant tumor cells that lurk in patients in remission and turn into deadly, recurring cancers.
“This definitely took time, I think we’ll acknowledge that,” Doug Thiede, the Senior Vice President of Life Sciences & Healthcare at the NYCEDC, tells Xconomy. “But what we’ve also learned over time from our partners and others in the ecosystem is we want to focus on companies that will stand the test of time. We’re excited about this particular investment being one of those.”
HiberCell has raised a $60.75 million Series A round led by Arch Venture Partners, one of the two life science venture firms—along with Flagship Pioneering—to manage the NYCEDC’s biotech fund (Flagship isn’t involved with HiberCell). The startup, spun out of research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, is the first biotech to set up shop in one of New York City’s newer startup spaces: the Hudson Research Center, which overlooks the Hudson River on the West Side of Manhattan. Its labs should open in April and will have space to fit upwards of 50 employees, says Alan Rigby, HiberCell’s president and chief scientific officer.
The startup’s emergence is noteworthy for a few reasons. It’s the first investment by the NYCEDC’s fund, which was launched to help spur the creation of new biotech companies in New York; $1.2 million of the round comes from the agency. And Rigby says HiberCell is the first company specifically focused on understanding and eradicating “dormant disseminating tumor cells,” or DTCs, an emerging area of cancer research focused on cells that break off from a primary tumor, hibernate in other tissues of the body, sometimes for years, and eventually “wake up” to form aggressive new tumors that often resist treatment.
“Patients don’t tend to die from their primary diagnosis,” says Rigby, a former Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY) oncology executive. “They die from metastatic disease.”
HiberCell aims to find these cells and understand how they work and what their genetic drivers are. It wants to then develop drugs that either kill DTCs or put them into a deeper sleep, so that another drug can come in, finish the job, and prevent a patient from relapsing. The company was formed around the work of one of the field’s leaders, Julio Aguirre-Ghiso, who co-heads the cancer mechanisms program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
The launch of HiberCell has been a long time coming for the NYCEDC. The quasi-governmental agency is focused on job creation in New York and teamed up with Celgene, Eli Lilly, and GE Ventures in 2013 to amass more than $100 million with the hope of forming 15 to 20 local life science startups by 2020. The fund was meant to support the longstanding, ongoing effort to boost the life sciences industry in New York, which has struggled for years to form the type of buzzing biotech ecosystem that exists in areas like Boston and San Francisco.
Despite some notable progress in the city—the arrival of startup incubators, the investment of $1 billion of city and state government life sciences funding, the launch of a few high-profile, well funded biotechs, and more—New York still lags well behind its rivals in getting venture dollars for startups. NYCEDC officials have acknowledged to Xconomy that it will “take a generation” for the region to catch up to its rivals. But it wasn’t … Next Page »