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Accelerate LI’s Latest Startup Aims to Rewire Viruses With Software

Xconomy New York — 

Accelerate Long Island seeded its first batch of startups earlier this year, and today it has circled back with its latest investment—a company purporting to use computer tools to whip up synthetic viruses and create new vaccines.

Accelerate LI and its strategic funding partner, the Long Island Emerging Technologies Fund, have invested $100,000 total—$50,000 apiece—in a biotech startup out of Stony Brook University called Codagenix. It’s the sixth investment made by Accelerate LI, the broad, non-profit initiative to commercialize technologies out of Long Island’s research institutions. Five of them, so far, have been life sciences companies.

The latest startup, Codagenix, founded by a group of current and former Stony Brook professors—Eckard Wimmer, Steffen Mueller, and Robert Coleman—has developed a way of making vaccines called “synthetic-attenuated virus engineering,” or SAVE. It’s a play on a traditional vaccine approach, called “live-attenuated vaccines,” in which viruses are weakened and injected into the body to help the immune system recognize foreign invaders. Codagenix instead uses computer algorithms to create templates of viruses with genomes that are altered in some specific way. It then uses those blueprints to genetically engineer synthetic versions of those rejiggered viruses from scratch and make vaccines. Coleman’s method has been featured in a few peer-reviewed publications like Science and Nature Biotechnology.

The idea is that this process will lead to a virus identical to the ones found in nature, and yield vaccines that trigger better immune responses in a wider range of people than traditional methods, while also being cheap to make. It’s a tough task for Codagenix, of course. Historically speaking, it’s exceedingly difficult for vaccine startups to get funded and succeed. Cost of goods in vaccine development is high, clinical development timelines are long, and the price companies can charge for vaccines is low compared to other drugs. Plus, a number of well-funded startups like Affinivax and Visterra, and the publicly traded Genocea Biosciences (NASDAQ: GNCA), have their own takes on updated ways to make vaccines.

But Codagenix, housed at the Long Island High Technology Incubator in Stony Brook, has already gotten a measure of validation from the federal government. It’s raised $1.7 million from the National Institutes of Health to help develop a group of vaccines for diseases like influenza, dengue virus, respiratory syncytial virus, and E. coli. The company’s most advanced prospect, for the flu, is in preclinical testing. The cash from Accelerate LI and the LIETF will help carry it through preclinical testing, to the precipice of its first clinical trial.

“We seek to construct a next generation flu vaccine—one that is highly effective each season for the young and elderly population, can be manufactured cheaply, and that could meet a global demand in the time of a pandemic emergency. The Accelerate Long Island and LIETF seed funds will provide crucial support to achieve this goal,” said Coleman, in a statement.

Accelerate LI was formed a few years ago by the presidents of several of Long Island’s big research institutions, and other participants invested in the local startup scene. It’s backed by a $500,000 grant from the state of New York and an additional $750,000 from local VC firms—Topspin Partners and Jove Equity Partners—and is focusing on life science and clean energy technologies. (I profiled the broad mission of Accelerate LI, to establish an entrepreneurial community in Long Island, back in 2013.) Each of the startups it backs gets $100,000 up front. Accelerate LI doesn’t get any equity in turn, though the cash it provides turns to debt should any of the startups either leave New York, go bankrupt, or go public (the LIETF, backed by Topspin and Jove, however, gets convertible debt that turns into small equity stakes upon a follow-up investment).

The five other startups to come out of Accelerate LI are Goddard Labs, Green Sulfcrete, PolyNova, SynchroPET, and Traverse Biosciences. You can read more about them here.