If you tried to count on one hand the number of New York City biotech startups to get a substantial funding round this year, you’d probably have a few fingers left over. A stealthy startup out of Rockefeller University named Rgenix is one of the lucky few to score a significant haul, and today it’s dishing out details on a plan to go after cancer with an unusual strategy.
Rgenix, a company with a drug discovery platform that it claims can unearth novel cancer targets, hasn’t said much publicly since it was founded five years ago by a group of scientist-brothers and a seasoned startup executive. The brothers: Sohail Tavazoie, a Rockefeller professor and a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Masoud Tavazoie, a Columbia University trained-physician scientist; and Saeed Tavazoie, a Columbia professor who chairs Rgenix’s scientific advisory board. The executive: Shahram Seyedin-Noor, a founding executive of genomic informatics startup NextBio, which Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) bought in 2013.
Seyedin-Noor, Rgenix’s executive chairman, and Masoud Tavazoie, its chief scientific officer, believe they’ve now made enough progress to step into the limelight. They say that endocrinology expert Rich Heyman, who founded and sold both Aragon Pharmaceuticals and Seragon Pharmaceuticals, has been named one of Rgenix’s scientific advisors, with a formal announcement coming next month. Regulatory filings show that just a few weeks ago Rgenix (pronounced ar-genix) raised $8 million from a group of unspecified investors. Seyedin-Noor confirms that two of them are the Partnership Fund for New York City and Nancy Chang, who founded Tanox three decades ago, sold it to Genentech years later, and is now a scientific advisor to Rgenix. In total, the company has raised around $10 million.
The startup plans to use the funding to help bring its lead drug candidate, a cancer drug called RGX-104, into its first clinical trials early next year. And that should set the stage for Rgenix to pitch itself to venture investors for a $20 million to $30 million Series B round, Seyedin-Noor says.
“We’ve been a little bit in stealth mode as we’ve built the science and the drug programs, but now we’re really hitting the gas,” Tavazoie says.
These rounds aren’t huge sums by biotech standards. Life sciences startups out of Cambridge, MA, emerge with eight-figure Series A rounds all the time and of late have been quickly turning them into much larger “crossover” investor-fueled follow-ons. But it’s not as common for a Manhattan-grown biotech startup founded by young scientists and based in the city to attract this kind of investment and get to the verge of its first trial. Regulatory filings show, for instance, that only two private New York City-based biotechs—ex-Teva Pharmaceutical Industries CEO Jeremy Levin’s Ovid Therapeutics, and a roughly two-decade old cancer drug developer called IRX Therapeutics—raised a round larger than $8 million this year.
I’ve written extensively about the city’s problems birthing and keeping hold of its own biotech startups. Rgenix, which is based at the New York Blood Center on the east side, a few blocks from Rockefeller, aims to buck the trend.
“Every single one of the founders including myself lives in New York, so we’re very committed to staying in Manhattan,” Seyedin-Noor says.
To survive and convince venture investors to buy in, Rgenix must prove that its drug discovery platform can uncover cancer targets that others haven’t been able to find, and that drugs aimed at those targets can stand out in the crowded, competitive field of cancer treatments.
The company unearths its targets by examining the levels of microRNA expression in cancer cells. MicroRNAs are tiny RNAs that don’t make proteins, but instead regulate the expression of certain genes. In cancer, Tavazoie says, the levels of some microRNAs are often altered. Using an in-house process, Rgenix identifies them and … Next Page »