Ventus Therapeutics Inc. is the latest in a string of Canadian biotechnology startups to land significant funds from top North American investors.
The two-year-old Montreal company has raised US$100-million led by Boston-based RA Capital Management and backed by U.S. funds BVF Partners, Casdin Capital and Cormorant Asset Management, plus Fonds de solidarité FTQ, Canada’s leading institutional investor in the sector.
The U.S. funds are high-profile “crossover” investors that typically back both private and public companies, suggesting Ventus could be on the path to go public in the medium term. “If the question is, within a year, would we have the attributes to go public if we want, the answer is yes,” chief executive officer Marcelo Bigal said. Ventus previously raised US$60-million from Versant Ventures and GV, the venture capital arm of Google parent Alphabet Inc. .
The Canadian biotech sector is off to a strong start for financings in 2021 after a record 2020. Vancouver immune cell developer Notch Therapeutics in February announced it had raised US$85-million in venture capital, while Toronto cancer treatment developer Point Biopharma Inc. said in March it expects to access US$300-million in funding this year, in part through a US$165-million financing led by RA and by merging with a publicly traded special purpose acquisition company listed on the Nasdaq that has US$135.7-million in cash.
Ventus is the creation of Versant, a San Francisco venture capital firm that has put together a string of highly valued Canadian biotechnology startups, including Repare Therapeutics and BlueRock Therapeutics, drawing from the country’s deep talent pool of medical researchers and leading U.S. scientists. Ventus has 39 employees split between Montreal and the Boston area, with the heads of biology and computational chemistry located here (Mr. Bigal lives in Philadelphia and, in non-pandemic times, works in Montreal). Of Ventus’s 22 Canadian employees, 17 worked at the Montreal research and development operations of pharma giants Merck & Co. Inc., Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Boehringer Ingelheim International GmbH before they pulled out of the city in the 2010s.
“The silver lining of these big organizations leaving the city is it helped to foster the local biotechnology environment [by leaving behind] high calibre talent … with blood in their eyes, ready to prove it was a mistake to walk away from Montreal,” said Mr. Bigal, who was previously chief medical officer at Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries Ltd. and briefly led research efforts by U.S. opioid maker Purdue Pharma LP to diversify into different therapies.
Ventus’s goal is to “drug the undruggable” by developing small molecules that can bond with disease-causing proteins in the body that have eluded researchers’ attempts to devise successful therapies, Versant managing director Jerel Davis said. “We call those ‘Holy Grail’ targets,” he said. “Ventus’s drugs are aiming to fundamentally inhibit that switch that is at the core of innate immunity to stop the overactivity of the immune system. Of all these proteins in the body, there are a number we want to drug but can’t figure out how. … If we could drug them, we could have a big impact on human disease.”
Its lead drug targets an immune system protein called NLRP3. The protein transforms into a molecule called an inflammasome that acts as an alarm to the human body against unwanted microbes and initiates the immune system’s response.
But NLRP3 can also overactivate, causing ailments that include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease. The trick is to find a “pocket” in the protein where a novel treatment can fuse to the structure, which past researchers have failed to do.
Several startups purchased by pharma giants in the past three years have tried to develop NLRP3 therapies; Mr. Bigal said drug candidates developed by Ventus have so far generated promising results in preclinical studies on mice, human tissue samples and computer models. The company is working on another four drugs to treat an array of immune system, inflammatory and neurological conditions and certain cancers.
“Ventus is cutting-edge science, and this team’s skills and spirit is just amazing,” said Geneviève Guertin, vice-president of investments and life sciences for the Fonds. “They have delivered everything they had planned and more.”
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