Octant, a new drug discovery company, launched Wednesday with millions in backing from tech investors to push ahead plans to leverage advances in science and in tech—including genomics, synthetic biology, and big data computation—to map out the relationships between chemicals, drug receptors, and diseases.
On Wednesday the Emeryville, CA-based startup announced it raised $30 million in a Series A financing led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), which earlier this year raised $750 million of its own for its third fund dedicated to backing firms that bring together biology and software to improve healthcare.
Octant—a reference to an early navigational device used by sailors to determine their latitude while at sea—was founded by computational biologist Sri Kosuri (pictured) and Ramsey Homsany, a lawyer who previously served as general counsel at Dropbox (NASDAQ: DBX) and deputy general counsel of the commercial group at Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL).
Kosuri joined the faculty at UCLA as a professor of chemistry and biochemistry in 2013 following a stretch in the lab of Harvard geneticist George Church, who leads synthetic biology at the university’s Wyss Institute. In addition to his academic career, Kosuri has previous experience as an entrepreneur, spending two years at biofuel startup Joule Unlimited about a decade ago. When Homsany’s interest in synthetic biology was piqued, he reached out to Kosuri, who he knew though family.
The two began talking about applying the tools of synthetic biology to the drug discovery process, and out of those discussions came Octant—today, a 20-person company headquartered in the Bay Area that aims to one day develop new treatments for conditions with manifold causes.
The company is far from the only startup with a plan to use recent technological advancements to improve the costly and lengthy journey to finding a new drug. Last week New York-based Immunai debuted with $20 million and a plan to map out the ecosystem of immune cells and their functions, aiming to use what it learns to develop new cell therapies and immunotherapies.
The Octant team uses cells it engineers using synthetic biology not as therapies, but to better understand how small molecules impact cellular signaling pathways, CEO Kosuri says. To do so, the company marks the cells with genetics tags, or what Octant terms “barcodes,” that activate once a particular receptor in a particular pathway is hit. Next-generation sequencing is used to detect when that has taken place.
“Because you can have many, many barcodes, you can test lots of those different pathways and receptors at the same time,” Kosuri said in an interview. “This lets us map the relationship of chemicals with hundreds of drug targets to get toward a comprehensiveness that’s not been possible before.”
The company’s aim is to design small molecule drugs that can target multiple receptors or disease pathways, and in doing so address especially complex disorders, such as metabolic and neurological diseases, that are believed to have a range of genetic factors among their root causes.
Octant is first focusing on how compounds interact with a family of membrane proteins known as G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) and their downstream signaling pathways. Cells use these rececptors to convert extracellular signals into intracellular responses; the proteins are involved in most physiological functions and pathological processes. This has made GPCRs a popular target for drug hunters; such proteins are the targets of more than one third of FDA-approved drugs, according to Octant.
A number of biotechs, including Escient Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, are also looking to develop drugs that target GPCRs.
In a sense, Octant is moving against the current mileu in biotech, where the concept of precision medicine is a hot topic. Targeted techniques are designed to precisely hit a specific enzyme or protein, and in doing so create a treatment with limited side effects.
Octant, instead, is looking to find drugs that have an impact on multiple targets in a bold bid to better address conditions that can’t be ameliorated by toggling on or off a solitary biochemical reaction.
“This approach has the potential to systematically create exhaustive maps of drug targets that reveal novel treatments for our most intractable diseases,” wrote a16z’s Jorge Conde, who joins Octant’s board as part of the deal, in a post about the investment. “Imagine being able to recapitulate decades of knowledge about a therapeutic area in just a few experiments. Or enabling a single research scientist to generate orders of magnitude more high-resolution data versus traditional screening approaches.”
Along with a16z, 8VC, SV Angel, and boutique investment bank Allen & Co. also invested in Octant’s Series A. Other unnamed private investors also participated in the round.