Tillman Gerngross made his name selling one of his startups, GlycoFi, to Merck, and later building a second one, Adimab, into a privately held business now reportedly worth more than $1 billion. That success has helped launch a group of startups tied to the Dartmouth College professor and his investors, among them Lebanon, NH-based Avitide, which is announcing its latest round of funding this morning.
Avitide, whose technology is meant to purify complex biologic drugs in speedy, efficient fashion, has raised a $7.6 million Series C led by NeoMed Management. Polaris Partners, OrbiMed Advisors, SV Life Sciences—investors who have backed Gerngross’s startups in the past—also participated, as did Borealis Ventures, N5 Investments, Hoyoung Huh, Angeli Parvi, and John Ballard. Avitide has now raised about $12.5 million total since its 2013 inception, according to CEO and co-founder Kevin Isett.
These are modest amounts for a biotech, where it can take millions of dollars and several years of plugging away to sniff success. And Avitide has some hurdles ahead: It’s trying to build a business through partnerships, and convince a variety of pharma and biotech companies to use its technology to help make various biologics, from vaccines and bi-specific antibodies to the viral “vectors,” or delivery vehicles, used in gene therapy. But Isett says that the uptake so far has Avitide believing it’ll be profitable in the next one to two years. He won’t identify Avitide’s partners, only saying they are large biotech and pharmaceutical companies, and that the projects Avitide is working on are varied. Some companies want help with preclinical drug candidates, while others are prepping to launch a drug and need help making more of it.
“The demand for the technology has increased significantly, and quite frankly we’re scaling to actually meet that challenge,” he says. The company currently has 17 employees, and expects to have more than 20 by the end of the year.
Avitide is trying to solve a problem in manufacturing certain types of biologic drugs. First some background: Biologics are often derived from microbes or other types of cells that are brewed in big vats, where the cells churn out the desired drug (like a protein). The drug is then purified, or separated from cellular debris, so it can be administered to a patient.
This purification is easy with monoclonal antibodies. It’s done via what’s known as “affinity chromatography” in which molecules called ligands that bind specifically to the drug are attached to resin beads or some other type of support structure. As the mixture of drug and debris flows over the resin, the drug molecules stick to the ligands—the rest simply washes away.
For a number of other biologics, however, Isett says there are “little to no” affinity resins commercially available to do this purification work. Discovering and developing them can take years, and without them a manufacturer has to perform ”four or five” chromatography steps, he says. Since some portion of the drug is lost with each step, this increases waste and expense. Avitide, Isett claims, can bring that down to one or two steps.
Avitide does this by developing specific types of peptide-based ligands that are inexpensive to manufacture and which can hook on to a much wider range of targets, including therapeutic proteins, gene therapies, and vaccines.
Avitide gets paid up front to discover ligands for its partners’ target drugs. It then gets downstream payments if a partner exercises an option to license a ligand to manufacture its drugs.
Isett got his PhD in Gerngross’s lab at Dartmouth, and used to be the head of high-throughput manufacturing at Adimab, the antibody discovery shop Gerngross founded in 2007. Gerngross helped Isett co-found Avitide in 2013, and is now the company’s chairman. (For more on Gerngross and the biotechs he’s helped spawn, Avitide, Arsanis, and Alector, check out this profile from last year.)
“We have ambitions to follow a similar path,” he says.