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Montreal biotechnology company Ventus Therapeutics Inc. has struck a development and licensing deal with pharma giant Novo Nordisk A/S NVO-N that could be worth more than US$700-million ($960-million) to the startup.

Novo has agreed to pay US$70-million ($95-million) up front to Ventus to develop its anti-inflammatory molecule to treat certain conditions, including a non-alcohol-related liver condition called NASH, chronic kidney disease and cardiometabolic ailments. Ventus can receive up to US$633-million ($861-million) more if the molecule achieves clinical, regulatory and commercial milestones, while Novo will cover clinical trial costs. Ventus, which has 85 employees split between Montreal and the Boston area, will also receive royalties if the drug is approved for sale.

Ventus combines structural biology, protein science expertise and computational chemistry to discover and develop small molecules that can bond with disease-causing proteins. 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 body against unwanted microbes and initiates an immune system response.

NLRP3 can also overactivate, causing ailments that include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease. The trick is to find what’s called a “pocket” in the protein where a novel treatment can fuse to the structure, which past researchers have failed to do.

Several startups bought by pharma giants in recent years have tried to develop NLRP3 therapies. Ventus CEO Marcelo Bigal said drug candidates developed by his company have so far generated promising results in preclinical studies on mice, human tissue samples and computer models. Ventus is working to develop other drugs on its own for conditions that are not part of the Novo deal, including for respiratory diseases such as asthma, osteoarthritis and central nervous system disorders that include epilepsy, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and brain trauma.

Mr. Bigal said Ventus sought to partner with a company that specializes in metabolic treatments, as Novo does, as it would otherwise be challenging and costly for Ventus to take the drugs in the deal through clinical trials. “We identified a partner that has interest, expertise and knowledge on diseases that mattered a lot to the public but that we couldn’t do on our own.”

Karin Conde-Knape, senior vice-president of global drug discovery with Novo, said in a release: “Ventus has developed a highly differentiated NLRP3 inhibitor program with best-in-class properties and compelling preclinical results. We are excited to partner with Ventus to advance this program to provide meaningful clinical benefit to patients within a broad range of diseases.”

Mr. Bigal said Ventus plans to have three drugs in human safety trials by the end of 2023. While Ventus still has not spent most of the US$290-million (around $395-million) it has raised to date, he said the company would be well-positioned by early 2024 to go public if market conditions improve. “I think early 2024 will be a remarkable period for the company. That would be a decent moment to think about it,” he said.

Ventus was created and initially funded in 2019 by Versant Ventures, a San Francisco venture capital firm that has put together a string of highly valued Canadian biotechnology startups. Close to two-thirds of Ventus’s staff works in Montreal, including its small molecule group. The city is also home to its testing facilities.

Its other investors include prominent biotechnology and technology financiers SoftBank Group, RA Capital Management, Andreessen Horowitz, GV, BVF Partners, Casdin Capital, Cormorant Asset Management and Alexandria Venture Investments, as well as Qatar Investment Authority and Canada’s Fonds de solidarité FTQ.

“Ventus is one of the most promising emerging companies in Canada,” said Versant managing director and Ventus chairman Jerel Davis. “The computation-based discovery platform and pipeline have exceeded expectations. Today’s partnership aligns Ventus with a great R&D organization while preserving significant upside for its internal development efforts.”