New Fundraising for Hair-Raising: Follica Takes in $11 Million for Baldness-Treatment Approach

If only hair could grow as fast as Follica’s pot of money. Just seven months after its $5.5 million Series A financing round, the Boston-based startup today announced it has raised an additional $11 million to bolster its efforts to develop new methods of treating male- and female-pattern baldness and other hair-follicle disorders such as excessive hair growth and acne. Follica, which confirmed a human pilot study of its hair-regeneration technique is underway, also added several new team members, including veteran life sciences and biotech executive G. Kirk Raab, former CEO of Genentech, who joined the company’s board as chairman.

The Series B round was led by Polaris Venture Partners of Waltham, MA (Polaris partner Kevin Bitterman also took a seat on the board), and joined by existing investors Interwest Partners of Dallas and Menlo Park, CA, (which led the Series A round); and founding investor PureTech Ventures, in whose offices Follica is headquartered.

Follica’s main initial focus is developing a treatment for the extremely common form of hair loss called androgenic alopecia—better known as male pattern baldness or female pattern baldness. “This financing will enable us to build out the company and move well down the path towards [regulatory] approval,” says Daphne Zohar, managing director of PureTech Ventures (and an Xconomist). “Our research has been progressing in a very positive way. We have had significant interest from the venture community and while we just closed the Series A round a few months ago, and weren’t planning on bringing in more money for a couple of years, we recognize that additional funds enable us to move more quickly. We have worked with Polaris before and they have been a great partner to us which is why we accelerated the Series B round.” Zohar added that Follica is in the process of transitioning to its own office space, and that it already has independent lab space.

My story about Follica’s debut last January and its quest for a baldness cure sparked a long-running (440 comments and counting as of this writing) conversation among the startup’s would-be customers that’s still quite lively all these months later. This highlights the intense interest in—and vast potential market for—an effective treatment for hair loss. Follica, for its part, claims treatments for conditions of the follicle represent a $10 billion-plus annual market. As Zohar said of the general field of aesthetic medicine back in January: “There’s huge markets, and most of the technologies and things that are out there don’t come from real academic science. A lot of them are this late-night infomercial type of thing.”

Aiming to inject some credible science into the field, Follica was formed in late 2006 by PureTech and a roster of leading researchers that includes University of Pennsylvania stem cell biologist George Cotsarelis, Harvard Medical School dermatologist Rox Anderson, and Vera Price, director of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Hair Research Center. As part of today’s announcement, Follica said it has bolstered this scientific firepower with the addition to its scientific advisory board of Samir Mitragotri, an expert in transdermal drug delivery at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

At the root of Follica’s approach to hair loss is Cotsarelis’s discovery (made after the company was formed) that when the skin’s uppermost layers are removed some cells within the wound revert to a more basic state from which they can develop into either skin or hair—and that he could actually direct cells in this “embryonic window” to form new hair follicles. Follica licensed that research and has since developed the work further and filed additional patents to protect the technology, the company has previously said.

As we described it back in January: “What’s so beautiful about the approach, [Zohar] says, is that translating it into a treatment for humans involves only devices and drugs that are already on the market. A doctor would first use a microdermabrasion tool, say, or a laser to remove the top layers of the skin—as is already commonly done in a number of dermatologic and cosmetic procedures—knocking some cells back into a primitive state. The doctor can then use this newly created therapeutic window to inject drugs that push the cells to develop along one pathway or another and grow hair or skin. Zohar won’t reveal what drugs Follica is using, except to say that they are small molecule drugs normally taken orally for purposes with no relation to hair growth.”

With the regulatory path relatively clear, Follica’s plan was to use its Series A money to quickly begin a small proof of concept study, involving 15 to 20 patients. Zohar yesterday confirmed that a pilot study is underway but wouldn’t confirm where or give any other details on its timing other than to tacitly stick to the timeline she laid out in January, when she said that final data from the study would not be available for at least a year. “Everything is progressing on track,” she now says. “We are moving as quickly as possible within the constraints of clinically driven medicine.”

Zohar also demurred when I asked about the reports in the reader comments on our story from January that the study only involves testing small patches of dermabrasion without administering any drugs to the wounds. In fact, she wouldn’t even confirm that the researchers were using dermabrasion to create the wounds in the first place. “At this point we are looking at the human response to disruption and the timing of the human ’embryonic window’ post disruption,” she said. “Disruption,” she added, “is not necessarily the same as dermabrasion.”

She declined further comment on the study.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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