Accelerator Reaches Out to East Coast to Find Latest Startup, Acylin Therapeutics

12/1/10Follow @xconomy

Accelerator, Seattle’s best known hotspot for hatching biotech startups, has found its latest idea for a new company on the East Coast.

Most of Accelerator’s investments of the past have come from its West Coast network, but the youngest pup in the litter at the Seattle-based startup machine, Acylin Therapeutics, is based on the vision of a biotech entrepreneur from Boston, and some science from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and The Wistar Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. Acylin is announcing today it has secured an undisclosed Series A venture round (which is typically in the ballpark of $4 million) from the usual suspects who back Accelerator—Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Amgen Ventures, Arch Venture Partners, OVP Venture Partners, PPD, and WRF Capital.

The idea here is that Acylin (pronounced ACE-uh-lin) will make small-molecule drugs aimed specifically at a class of enzyme targets known as histone acetyltransferases. The concept of fighting cancer through this route has been gaining increasing attention in Big Pharma and venture capital, particularly since Cambridge, MA-based Gloucester Pharmaceuticals won FDA clearance of its drug romidepsin for a rare lymphoma last year, and was quickly bought out by Summit, NJ-based Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) in a deal that could be worth $640 million over time. Merck also has an approved drug, vorinostat, in the same class of histone deacetylase inhibitors (HDAC), and Novartis has a candidate in advanced development for cancer called panobinostat.

Acylin’s hope, based on science from the labs of Philip Cole at Johns Hopkins and Ronen Marmorstein at Wistar, is that it will develop more specifically targeted and more potent drugs that work through this pathway against cancer, metabolic diseases like diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders.

Carl Weissman

Carl Weissman

“We are the first company to target this class in a serious way,” says Bard Geesaman, Acylin’s chief technical officer. “The founders have solved a number of 3-D structures, so designing drugs is more straightforward than it was before.”

Biotech is clearly one of those industries built on relationships, and Acylin is no exception to the rule. Accelerator CEO Carl Weissman goes way back with all the key business players here. Back when Weissman was with MPM Capital in 2001, he hired Geesaman as the top technical guy at Cambridge, MA-based Centagenetix, based on a recommendation from stem cell researcher George Daley. Centagenetix was merged into Elixir Pharmaceuticals in 2003, where Weissman got to know chief scientific officer Peter DiStefano. Years later, DiStefano hooked up with one of his former Millennium Pharmaceuticals colleagues, Suresh Jain, who was seeking help in getting his business vision for Acylin off the ground.

Jain, who believed in this company so much that he essentially kept it going himself as a virtual operation for about two years, eventually hit paydirt when he and DiStefano got connected to Geesaman. He was basically between jobs after his first Accelerator startup (GPC-Rx, later renamed PharmSelex) was shut down. Geesaman liked the idea, and the people were familiar. DiStefano and Jain are now serving as “highly involved” consultants to Acylin, and may join the company full-time in the future if it hits its technical milestones and attracts more financing.

“It’s like the Blues Brothers,” Weissman says. “We’re putting the band back together.”

Accelerator is known for providing a lot of business and lab support so entrepreneurs can focus on the scientific milestones they need to meet to win further venture capital support, and essentially grow up into independent companies. Usually, these startups require about 18 to 24 months to hit their milestones and “graduate” with significant wads of cash, like Accelerator alumni VLST, Allozyne, Theraclone Sciences, and Integrated Diagnostics have done over the past five years. In this case, Acylin ought to be able to hit its milestones in 15 to 18 months, Geesaman says.

But like almost everything at the early stages where Accelerator gets involved, this is easier said than done. Many of the enzymes Acylin seeks to specifically target are quite similar structurally to non-disease related enzymes, which means that traditionally it has been “very difficult to make them specific” to a certain disease-related target, Geesaman says.

The latest investment caps off what has been an unusually slow stretch for Accelerator, which founded its last company about 18 months ago—Xori. Weissman, as he said in a story back in January, noted that Accelerator isn’t under any pressure to make a set number of investments per year, and that it has the luxury of being able to move only when it sees what it considers a truly big opportunity. By investing in Acylin, Accelerator has enough cash left on hand to invest in two more companies before it will have to reload with another fund, Weissman says.

“It’s been a slack time, but not because of capital constraints,” Weissman says. “We haven’t found any companies lately, other than this one, that we are really excited about.”

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