Haya Therapeutics shouts 'hiya!' as it emerges from stealth with seed funding

HAYA Therapeutics CEO Samir Ounzain

Swiss precision medicine biotech Haya Therapeutics is coming out of stealth today with nearly $20 million, or CHF 18 million, in seed funding to boost its anti-fibrotic therapies.  

The preclinical startup’s seed round was led by Broadview Ventures and included participation from Apollo Health Ventures, BERNINA BioInvest, 4See Ventures, Schroder Adveq and Viva BioInnovator.  

Haya will deploy the funds on building innovative organ and cell-selective therapeutics targeting long non-coding (lncRNAs) in the treatment of fibrosis and other aging-related serious medical conditions. Long non-coding RNAs, or a new class of regulatory molecules from the human genome’s “dark matter,” received a boost of notoriety last week when Flagship Pioneering revealed its Laronde platform, born out of a team that began exploring lncRNA’s therapeutic applications in 2017. 

“It appears that the science that has been generated over the last five years has reached a point of maturity when I think Big Pharma saw and appreciated that this is really where we need to focus our attention for chronic and common diseases,” said Samir Ounzain, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder, in an interview. “When you follow the science, it’s becoming unavoidable for Big Pharma to start looking at this dark matter.”  

Haya is preparing for clinical trials of its lncRNA Wisper. Ounzain conducted preclinical research at the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), where he and a team of colleagues demonstrated Haya’s lead program was able to “halt and potentially reverse fibrosis in the heart,” the company said in the funding announcement. Haya has an exclusive license with CHUV for the Wisper asset and does not currently have any other partnerships, the CEO said.  

Ounzain said the funding will help Haya gear up for entry into a Phase I clinical trial within 24 to 36 months as the company is currently completing its large animal translational studies.  

The clinical trial, likely to take place in North America, will focus initially on a small patient population, Ounzain said, that of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an orphan disease. Last week, Brystol Myers Squibb showed promise in its investigational cardiac myosin inhibitor for patients with obstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The Big Pharma, through its $13.1 billion cash acquisition of MyoKardia in October, provided Phase 3 data revealing the inhibitor, mavacamten, showed improvement in health status compared to placebo at 30 weeks.

Haya's seed capital will also go toward its drug discovery engine, developed over the past 12 months, to form a pipeline of anti-fibrotics for tissues such as lung, kidney, liver and the tumor microenvironment, Ounzain said.  

In conjunction with the funding, Haya announced Robert Williamson is joining as executive chair to the board. “He really allows us to explore the landscape, primarily in the United States, with respect to potential partners and potential investors going forward,” Ounzain said. Williamson was appointed CEO and president of BioTheryx, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical focused on degrading proteins, in January.  

Also joining the board are Apollo Health Ventures Managing Partner Jens Eckstein, Ph.D., and Broadview Ventures’ Benjamin Kreitman. Ounzain and Daniel Blessing, Ph.D., co-founder and chief technology officer, comprise the remainder of the board.  

Ounzain said the “incredible speed, success” and “efficacy and safety” of the Moderna-BioNTech COVID-19 mRNA vaccine “really highlights the potential of this field.” 

“Most of your DNA is producing RNA, not protein, and I think the COVID situation has illuminated the general community of the power of RNA as the next generation modality,” the CEO added.