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Skyhawk Lands $100M from Funding & Celgene Pact for RNA-Targeted Drugs

Xconomy Boston — 

Almost exactly a year ago, a Boston-area cancer immunotherapy startup led by Bill Haney announced its first partnership, with Celgene. Haney, a tech entrepreneur, filmmaker and investor, is at it again today, announcing a similar deal with the Summit, NJ, drug maker, but this time as the head of his other, newer biotech company, Skyhawk Therapeutics. Skyhawk of Waltham, MA says it will receive $60 million up front from its partner, and that it has also secured $40 million in equity investment from earlier investors, including family offices, as well as from new investors including Celgene.

Skyhawk launched earlier this year with $8 million in seed funding to develop RNA-targeting small-molecule drugs for cancer and neurological diseases. The Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) deal, the first pharmaceutical partnership for Skyhawk, gives Celgene the chance to license up to five of Skyhawk’s experimental drugs for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Huntingdon’s disease and other neurological disorders. The deal also includes the possibility of future licensing fees, milestone payments, and royalties, in addition to the $60 million up-front payment.

Skyhawk’s drugs are designed to correct errors in the way that RNA molecules (which carry the genetic instructions for proteins) are processed, or ‘spliced’, by the cell before the cell uses them as templates to make proteins. Skyhawk is one of several companies aiming to target RNA with small molecule drugs in one way or another. “Targeting RNA with therapeutics is becoming an increasingly important approach in neurological research,” Richard Hargreaves, vice president for neuroscience, imaging research and early development for Celgene, said in a prepared statement. Here’s more on Skyhawk’s approach.

Skyhawk, like Haney’s immuno-oncology company Dragonfly Therapeutics, is also taking an unusual approach in biotech financing by leaning on family investors, rather than just on venture ones. The $40 million announced today comes from Alexandria Venture Investments, GreatPoint Ventures, ShangPharma Innovation and Agent Capital. The family investors include Tim Disney, the Duke of Bedford, the Reilly Family and other tech-focused ones.

Skyhawk says its first drug, for oncology, should be in clinical trials by late next year. Haney says the neurology drugs covered by this deal could follow soon thereafter.

Haney cofounded Skyhawk and was the chairman at the beginning of the year, working with Skyhawk’s scientific founder Kathleen McCarthy who was CEO at the time. But Haney says the business progressed faster than anticipated, and as investors and drug development partners started reaching out to Skyhawk, McCarthy transitioned to the chief scientific officer position to focus on research. Haney agreed to take the helm.