Warp Drive Bio Launches With $125M from Third Rock, Greylock, Sanofi

1/10/12Follow @arleneweintraub

Today a new company called Warp Drive Bio is starting up in Cambridge, MA, with a simple and powerful premise: Mother Nature may be the best source of blockbuster drugs—if only we can find new methods for unlocking her secrets. Warp Drive’s plan is to use genomics technology incubated at Boston-based Third Rock Ventures to discover new “natural products,” which are therapies derived from plants, animals, and other wild organisms.

Warp Drive is being launched with $125 million in funding from Third Rock and French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi (NYSE: SNY). Greylock Partners also participated in the financing. Warp Drive was co-founded by Greg Verdine, a Harvard University chemical biologist and venture partner at Third Rock, along with Harvard University genomics expert George Church, and biolochemist James Wells of the University of California at San Francisco.

The startup’s business model is distinctive in that Warp Drive will remain fully independent. It will retain rights to many of the assets it develops, and even have the freedom to pursue other partnerships beyond its Sanofi alliance. The funding is tranched, and contingent upon Warp Drive reaching milestones in developing the technology and proving it works.

Perhaps what’s most unusual about the deal is that it’s set up to ensure that Sanofi will acquire Warp Drive if certain milestones are reached. “Sanofi doesn’t just have the option to buy, they have the obligation,” says Alexis Borisy, a Third Rock partner (pictured at right) who is serving as interim chief executive officer of Warp Drive. “That decreases the financing risk for Warp Drive, and it decreases the liquidity risk for the VCs. We’re not at the whim of the IPO market.”

Warp Drive refers to its core platform as a “genomic search engine.” The company’s ultimate goal is to develop the technology to the point where it will be able to comb through naturally derived substances—such as plants and soil—and sequence the genomesof the microbes hidden in them. Ideally, says Borisy, the platform will be able to use that information to help scientists uncover new molecules that have the highest probability of hitting disease targets.

Nature has been one of the drug industry’s richest sources of pharmaceutical success stories. The menu of products that originated in the wild include diabetes drug exenatide (Byetta), derived from Gila monster saliva; heart failure treatment digoxin, which comes from the foxglove plant; and ziconotide (Prialt), a pain treatment from the cone snail. “Nature is an incredibly medicinal chemist,” Borisy says. “Nature can drug targets in ways we’ve never been able to figure out how to do.”

Problem is, natural products can be extraordinarily difficult to translate into drugs. They often have to be tweaked to achieve the right potency, and sometimes they don’t behave in the lab as they do in the wild, making it all the more difficult to figure out how to transform them into useful therapies. “This has traditionally taken years of smelly, hard work in the lab,” Borisy says. “We want to be able to do this in a more efficient way.”

Borisy estimates that half of big pharmaceutical firms have gotten out of the business of searching for drug leads from natural products altogether, and the other half aren’t pouring enough resources into the area to yield significant leads. “The industry has probably only studied about 1 percent of what nature has to offer,” he says.

Warp Drive isn’t revealing much yet about how its platform works. Borisy says the startup is still a long way from completing the technology and proving it can do what they have planned for it. But he’s optimistic that if it all plans out, Warp Drive may be at the forefront of a renaissance in natural products. “We envision a complete re-imagining of this area,” he says.

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