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Cancer immunotherapy pioneer William Coley

William Coley 1862-1936 (Wiki commons image)

Cancer immunotherapy pioneer William Coley

Sirenas

Sirenas

Sirenas has technology to identify and isolate potential drug compounds from marine environments and uses synthetic chemistry to reproduce these natural compounds in the lab. The company intends to use its “Atlantis” platform to advance compounds for oncology, infectious diseases, and neurological disorders and build a pipeline of new chemical entities. Sirenas also is working with two unnamed pharmaceutical partners to use its compounds as the "payloads" in antibody-drug conjugates. Eduardo Esquenazi, Jake Beverage, and Phil Baran of the Scripps Research Institute founded the company in 2012. Sirenas now has 15 full-time employees, with funding from angel investments, partner revenue, and a small business innovative research grant.

(Sirenas photo)

Synthorx

Synthorx

Synthorx has synthesized an extra pair of DNA nucleotides---X and Y---that don’t exist in nature. Adding X and Y to the mix with A, T, G, and C enables Synthorx to engineer new permutations of DNA, and create new drug molecules with enhanced pharmacological properties. Synthorx is targeting conditions with big unmet medical needs, such as pain, metabolic disorders, cancer, and infectious diseases. Floyd Romesberg of The Scripps Research Institute and Court Turner of Avalon Ventures (above left) founded Synthorx in 2014. Avalon and Correlation Ventures provided an undisclosed amount of Series A funding for the company, which now has eight employees.

(Synthorx photo)

DiaVacs

DiaVacs

DiaVacs aims to treat type 1 diabetes by re-engineering dendritic cells, the orchestra leaders of the immune system, to protect insulin-producing pancreatic cells rather than attack them. To this end, DiaVacs has two orphan drug products under development. Both are administered subcutaneously near the pancreas to quell an autoimmune attack on pancreatic islet cells. Initial human trial data of DiaVacs' approach demonstrated safety and preliminary efficacy. Scientist Dietrich Stephan and biotech executive Haro Hartounian founded DiaVacs in 2013. CEO Alan Lewis and Richard Murphey are now the only two employees. Friends and family have invested $4.3 million so far.

(Dendritic cell image by Don Bliss, Sriram Subramaniam, Wiki commons)

Arcturus photo used with permission

Arcturus Therapeutics

Arcturus Therapeutics is a developer of RNA-based drugs, founded in 2013 by Pad Chivukula (left) and Joseph Payne (right). Under partnerships with Johnson & Johnson and Ultragenx, Arcturus says it’s targeting diseases where there is unmet medical need and commercial opportunity. Arcturus says it can block disease genes with small interfering RNA fragments or replace missing or damaged genes with messenger RNA. The company has raised about $12 million from high net worth individuals, and CEO Payne says it is cash flow positive, primarily due to upfront payments of “double-digit millions” by pharma partners.

(Arcturus photo)

Leading Biosciences

Leading Biosciences

Leading BioSciences, founded in 2005 by John Rodenrys, Chip Parker, and Charles Gathers, says it is moving forward this year with a Phase 2 clinical trial of its lead compound, a treatment intended to prevent multi-organ failure due to acute shock. The company says its drug binds with digestive enzymes that escape from the gut during shock, and wreak havoc on major organs. Over the past decade, Leading BioSciences has sustained its operations with $22 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, $20 million from individual investors.

(Leading Biosciences image)

Novoron

Novoron

Novoron Bioscience is developing new drugs designed to regenerate damaged neurons and restore myelin formation in diseases and disorders that include spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, and glaucoma. Travis Stiles (right) and A. Taylor Bright (left), two biomedical scientists who got their doctorates from UC San Diego, founded Novoron in 2013 with corporate development chief Shawn Gahr. Novoron now has six employees, and has funded its operations with just over $1.2 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Visionary Pharmaceuticals

Visionary Pharmaceuticals

Visionary Pharmaceuticals, founded in 2010 by Gordon Alton, Jim Zapf, and Ayse Batova, is developing small-molecule drugs that modulate the immune system to treat autoimmune disease and cancer. The company says it has developed a drug discovery engine that combines computational technology for identifying drug binding sites with a database of more than 200 million compounds. In the image above, provided as a conceptual example, the target of one of Visonary’s drugs (depicted in green and gray) is the purple ribbon, which represents a piece of a so-called RORγt protein, which plays an essential role in the development of lymphocytes. The company has five employees, and has mostly self-funded its operations. Visionary also received some angel investments and NIH grants.

(Visionary image)

Avelas

Avelas

Avelas Biosciences is in early stage clinical trials with a diagnostic agent that is administered intravenously to help surgeons differentiate cancerous tissue from healthy tissue while they are operating. The technology uses peptides that glow in the presence of proteases, enzymes that are abnormally high in cancerous tissue. UC San Diego professor Roger Tsien, a 2008 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, founded Avelas in 2009 with Kevin Kinsella, founder of San Diego’s Avalon Ventures. Avelas now has eight employees and has raised about $21 million from Avalon, WuXi Healthcare Ventures, Torrey Pines Investment, and others. Pictured above, from left: clinical affairs VP Steven Chen, CEO Carmine Stengone, CSO Jesus “Tito” Gonzalez.

(Avelas photo)

ChromaCode

ChromaCode

ChromaCode, founded in 2012, uses digital signal processing and machine learning techniques to dramatically enhance data analysis for molecular diagnostics and related life sciences tools. ChromaCode’s first products increased the testing power of real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) instruments by five-fold---and there are 100,000 such instruments in use worldwide. “It’s akin to adding a turbocharger to a car engine to get more horsepower,” said co-founder and CEO Greg Gosch (in blue shirt above). “We are succeeding by leveraging the data analytic strategies historically relegated to the tech industry.” ChromaCode has five employees (pictured above) and has raised $2.5 million in venture funding from Domain Associates and Okapi Ventures.

(ChromaCode photo)

Renova Therapeutics

Renova Therapeutics

Renova Therapeutics, founded in 2009, is developing one-time gene therapy treatments for chronic cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Its lead product is in mid-stage trials for congestive heart failure. Renova uses a modified adenovirus to deliver a therapeutic gene directly to the heart via a catheter. The gene therapy, taken up by heart cells, is intended to reverse the degeneration of heart muscle by increasing production of a key protein. H. Kirk Hammond, a UC San Diego cardiologist, founded Renova with CEO Jack Reich (center above) and Craig Andrews. Renova has won multiple NIH grants, and raised some investor funding. It has seven employees (including those pictured above) and numerous consultants.

AristaMD

AristaMD

AristaMD has developed cloud-based software for use by primary care physicians. Its Web-based platform provides preliminary workup guidelines (through an exclusive partnership with UCSF Medical Center), access to electronic consults with specialists, and specialist referral analytics. AristaMD offers access to its own panel of board-certified specialists, or clients may choose AristaMD’s platform to connect with specialists they know. Founded by Rebecca Cofinas in 2014, AristaMD has nine employees in San Diego, seven developers in Costa Rica, and over 10 consultants. Avalon Ventures and Correlation Ventures provided $4 million in Series A funding.

(AristaMD screenshot)

Decoy Biosystems is a virtual biotech founded in 2013 by microbiologist Michael Newman to revive pioneering work in cancer immunotherapy done in the 1890s by William Coley at New York Cancer Hospital. Coley used killed bacteria to provoke an immune response that cured many inoperable cancer patients. Newman has invented new methods to kill bacteria before administering them intravenously, and to greatly reduce their toxicity. As Decoy’s sole employee, Newman has raised $700,000 from angel investors, and uses contract research organizations for R&D. He plans to advance Decoy’s cancer immunotherapy products to early clinical stage and license or sell the technology.

Xconomy San Diego — 

A whole new crop of life sciences startups are germinating in San Diego, which is good news for the regional cluster of established companies that are focused on innovation in biotechnology, medical devices, healthcare technologies, and medical diagnostics. Renewal is crucial to sustaining and growing an innovation cluster like San Diego’s life sciences community.

But identifying a dozen local startups to watch in the life sciences has been a far more challenging task than selecting the 12 tech startups that made Xconomy’s list of local tech companies to watch in September.

For one thing, life sciences startups typically take far longer to go to market, with regulatory requirements that often take a decade or longer to meet.

Life sciences startups also require far more invested capital just to demonstrate a proof of concept. A group of venture investors that has invested $40 or $50 million in an early stage biotech has essentially validated the company and its technology. It’s my intent here to highlight the other, less visible, life sciences startups.

So the criteria used here were intentionally fuzzy. Most of the companies on this list were founded in the last five years. Most have raised less than $25 million from investors. None of them are public companies.

San Diego’s Amplyx Pharmaceuticals, a frugal drug development company focused on improving existing cancer and anti-viral drugs, would have been a good candidate to make the list. But Amplyx raised $40.5 million from several venture investors in November. (In the preceding nine years, Amplyx had subsisted on $7.7 million in grants and some angel funding.) Crinetics Pharmaceuticals, which scavenged lab equipment for six years, fell off the list in the same way—after raising $40 million.

Some companies made the list based on the strength of their startup leadership. Avelas co-founder Roger Tsien was a 2008 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry for his discoveries in fluorescing peptides. Phil Baran, a co-founder of Sirenas (previously known as Sirenas Marine Discovery) and a professor of chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute, was named a MacArthur fellow in 2013 for his work in synthetic chemistry.

Some companies made the cut based on the strength of their board members, who are often also investors or well-connected to venture investors. Dan Bradbury, the former CEO of San Diego’s Amylin Pharmaceuticals and an active biotech investor, is on the board of both DiaVacs and Renova Therapeutics.

Some made the list based on their innovation. CEO Michael Newman, who is the CEO and lone employee of Decoy Biosystems, said he founded the company to revive some very old research exploring the potential of using killed bacteria to spur the body’s immune system to fight cancer. “Today, cancer immunotherapy is the hottest field in the world,” Newman said. “And what people don’t realize is that it was invented in the 1800s.”

One of the most surprising discoveries that resulted from my quest to identify some of San Diego’s most-promising startups was the sheer number of early stage companies that are germinating here.

In my effort to cast a wide net, I talked with a number of life sciences investors in San Diego. I met with Kara Bortone, a scientific scout and portfolio manager for Johnson & Johnson Innovation and the JLABS incubator in San Diego. I talked with service providers who work with early stage biotechs. Biocom, the San Diego-based industry group, provided a spreadsheet that listed more than 40 local life sciences startups.

By the time I was done, my list had close to 80 companies.

And then the great winnowing began, followed by some immediate second-guessing. As one VC investor put it, “I had no idea there are this many new companies in town. How come you didn’t include [my portfolio company]?”