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With Startup, Bio Pioneer Tom Maniatis Looks to Spark NY Scene Again

Xconomy New York — 

When molecular biology pioneer Tom Maniatis left Harvard University for New York six years ago, he set his sights on creating the same entrepreneurial foment that he’d come to know in Cambridge, MA.

Many years before moving to New York, he helped found Genetics Institute, one of the biotech industry’s early trailblazing companies. It’s fair to say no part of any of the five boroughs resembles Kendall Square, Cambridge’s biotech hotbed, but Maniatis has already made his mark.

He has helped drive a massive citywide effort to build the New York Genome Center, the Big Apple’s answer to Cambridge’s big genetic sequencing lab, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Now Maniatis (pictured above) has co-founded a new company, Kallyope, which is backed by three Nobel laureates and has secured one of the largest Series A funding rounds for a New York-based biotech in recent memory.

To keep things in perspective, the $44 million Kallyope has raised, while large for an initial biotech round, is nowhere near the biggest seen in the sector. This year alone, San Francisco Bay Area startups Denali Therapeutics and Gritstone Oncology have raised Series A dollars in the nine figures. In Boston, Third Rock Ventures frequently starts up companies, such as Neon Therapeutics and Decibel Therapeutics, with commitments of around $50 million.

What’s truly unusual about Kallyope (pronounced Kahl-EE-oh-pay) is that it was formed in New York City. The startup is housed in the Alexandria Center for Life Science on the East Side of Manhattan. According to CEO Nancy Thornberry, a veteran drug hunter who spent three decades at Merck, the startup occupies most of the tenth floor. It’s enough space to accommodate Kallyope’s plans to triple its headcount of eight employees by next year, and go well beyond that thereafter.

The science behind Kallyope is from New York as well. The startup aims to explore the biology that links the brain and the gut and develop both medical and consumer products.

It’s all based on the scientific work of three Columbia University professors and good friends: Lasker Award winner Maniatis, Nobel laureate Richard Axel, and Charles Zuker. Axel and Zuker are widely known for important research into understanding our sense of smell and taste.

“[We] talk every day, we share students and postdocs, so we interact very closely,” says Maniatis. “This company has been percolating for two years, and the two years really were necessary to execute this plan.”

New York biotech venture firm Lux Capital incubated Kallyope, and the three founding scientists have put together a syndicate of backers from three of the U.S.’s other big biotech hubs—Boston (Polaris Partners), San Francisco (The Column Group), and San Diego (Illumina).

The investment arm of Kallyope’s landlord Alexandria Real Estate Equities and longtime Venrock venture capitalist Tony Evnin are also backing Kallyope.

One reason the company needs such a big initial infusion of cash is its ambition. Its scientists will be delving into no small amount of biological mystery to understand what’s known as the “gut-brain axis,” a kind of information superhighway between the cells in our guts and the central nervous system. Its commercial ambitions are writ rather large, too, at least for now: to develop drugs for a wide range of diseases and consumer products as well.

Startups like Kallyope don’t come along often in New York biotech. As I wrote earlier this year, when Rockefeller University spinout Rgenix raised $8 million in August, it was one of only three biotechs in the city at the time to get a private round that size or larger in 2015. There isn’t much lab space, an issue that’s still unresolved, and to this point, there are only a few incubators in the city to help startups get on their feet.

Rockefeller president Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who isn’t involved with Kallyope, says that … Next Page »

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