The series A, led by corporate venturing unit GV, may not have been last week’s largest deal, but Verve’s tie-up with fellow Harvard spinout Beam Therapeutics tells an intriguing story.
GV, an early-stage corporate venturing subsidiary of technology conglomerate Alphabet, investing in a spinout is nothing unusual – even when it is at a stage where many other corporates would shy away. But that GV led a $58.5m series A round last week for Verve Therapeutics, a US-based gene-editing technology provider based on research at Harvard University and Broad Institute, hides a more intriguing story.
The round also featured Arch Venture Partners, the venture capital firm spun out of University of Chicago, as well as F-Prime Capital, a division of investment and financial services group Fidelity, and VC firm Biomatics Capital.
Incorporated in 2018 but officially launched with the series A announcement, Verve is using genetic analysis and gene editing to develop treatments capable of altering an adult’s genome. The company is hoping its approach is capable of reducing the risk of coronary artery disease, a common form of heart disease.
Burt Adelman, a co-founder and chairman of Verve, said: “Cholesterol-lowering treatments have been an important advance for many patients at risk of coronary artery disease.
“However, as the disease’s prevalence rises in low and middle-income countries, the current treatment model of daily pills or monthly injections over a lifetime must evolve if we are to effectively protect millions of people from disability or death due to coronary artery disease.
“Imagine if a single injection could permanently and safely prevent coronary disease. That is the singular goal that Verve will be pursuing.”
The company has signed licensing agreements with Harvard University and Broad Institute, a joint biomedical research centre of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.
Verve’s incoming chief executive and another of the company’s co-founders is Sekar Kathiresan, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School as well as the director of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Centre for Genomic Medicine and the Ofer and Shelly Nemirovsky MGH Research Scholar. He is also director of the Cardiovascular Disease Initiative at Broad.
Chief scientific adviser, and also a co-founder, is Kiran Musunuru, an associate professor of cardiovascular medicine and genetics at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Musunuru previously undertook postdoctoral research at Broad Institute.
J Keith Young, the Desmond and Ann Heathwood Research Scholar, pathologist at MGH and professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School is also a co-founder, and Young’s involvement is arguably the most notable – more on that in a moment.
The academics were joined by co-founders also including Issi Rozen, chief business officer at Broad Institute, and Anthony Philippakis, chief data officer at Broad Institute and a venture partner at GV. Philippakis has a background in cardiology, biophysics and mathematics.
Beyond its agreements with Harvard and Broad Institute, Verve has also partnered Verily, the life sciences subsidiary of Alphabet, enabling it to leverage Verily’s nanoparticle screening platform – presumably this strengthened the argument for GV to back the spinout.
But, and here things become interesting, Verve also has a collaboration agreement with Beam Therapeutics, a genetic medicine spinout of Harvard, allowing it to access Beam’s base-editing, gene-editing and delivery technology.
In fact, Harvard spinout Beam Therapeutics was co-founded by none other than the aforementioned Young and, in another twist, itself collected $135m in series B funding in March 2019 from investors including GV, Arch Venture Partners and F-Prime Capital, among others. The round netted Beam Therapeutics a nomination for this year’s GUV Deal of the Year award.
Young is building up an impressive network of spinouts, as Beam Therapeutics’ shareholders also include pharmaceutical firm Editas Medicine, which obtained a stake as part of a licensing and option agreement.
Editas, a public company with a market cap of $1.2bn, was co-founded by Young in 2013 and in June last year committed up to $125m in research funding to Broad Institute and Harvard University. The company secured an exclusive first option to negotiate for licences to genome-editing technologies that arise from the sponsored research.
The absence of Editas among Verve’s shareholders – for now, at least – points at this not being the result of that deal, but this has not prevented Young from adding to a list of impressive spinouts. And with that much funding driving genomics research at the university and Broad Institute, there will inevitably have been some cross-pollination between researchers.
All these factors – the expertise of GV in the healthcare sector and Young’s ground-breaking research that led to Editas going from an initial public offering in 2016 selling shares at $16 a pop to trading at around $24.50 at the time of writing – show that Verve Therapeutics is a force to be reckoned with, even if a $58.5m series A round is a relatively modest amount in today’s world of healthcare startups.
But in many ways, Verve will also be spared from reinventing the wheel thanks to its ties with Beam Therapeutics and Verily, so the capital should provide a decent amount of runway. In any case, this is a spinout that warrants close observation and it will be exciting to see where this story goes next.
GV’s involvement is also noteworthy because it underlines how much the corporate venture capital unit believes in Young’s research – that Editas IPO may very well have a role to play here. It just goes to show that not all spinouts struggle to convince corporate investors, though if this throws up questions about just how unusual – or not – it really is, keep an eye out for the Global University Venturing magazine next week, which will look at the numbers in depth and offer anecdotal evidence from both sides of the innovation ecosystem.