What can bats, naked mole rats and Jaws tell us about human biology? Paratus is on a $100M mission to find out

What do bats, naked mole rats and Jaws have in common? Probably not a lot, but at least the first two may be able to teach us something about human biology.

That’s the hope of a new biotech called Paratus Sciences launching today with a $100 million series A fundraising co-led by Polaris Partners, Arch Venture Partners, ClavystBio, EcoR1 Capital and Leaps by Bayer. Alexandria Venture Investments also participated.

Inspired by the humble and much maligned bat, Paratus is hoping to study the unique characteristics that have evolved in the only flighted mammal over millions of years to solve afflictions such as inflammation, viral infection and more. It’s a PR campaign of sorts, for a creature that has been dragged through the mud (or guano) since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when they were implicated—probably unfairly—in infecting humans with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“Jaws the shark and bats are probably the two most misunderstood animals out there,” said Phil Ferro, president and head of global operations at Paratus.

While the company seems to have a unique concept of studying bats, drug hunters have looked before to strange animals like the naked mole rat. Also known as a sand puppy, the ugly, hairless rodents with extreme physiology and a lengthy life span have been studied for anti-aging and oxidative stress before.

But you know what they say, “as soon as you pull the naked mole rat out into the lab, it loses a lot of what makes it so special,” according to Ferro. Bats, on the other hand, have a long life span, unique physiology and habitats just like ours, making them a much easier and closer model to study.  

It’s safe to say that Ferro, who served as director for countering biological threats on the White House’s National Security Council staff from March 2019 to September 2020, really likes bats. His enthusiasm at what these creatures can teach us about human therapeutics was palpable. Take one of the bat’s signature characteristics: the ability to fly. That’s a huge metabolic challenge, according to Ferro, and the human body could learn a lot from the evolution it took to get there.

Paratus is developing a drug discovery platform to one day create new therapeutic targets for high unmet medical needs. Ferro specifically highlighted inflammation, in fact that’s what Paratus’ first candidate is targeting, but the platform could someday churn out candidates for oncology, metabolic disorders and aging, too.

It’s frankly—and Fierce Biotech does apologize for going here—a batty idea, but one the head of Leaps by Bayer, Juergen Eckhardt, M.D., found very compelling.

“As a VC, you see hundreds and thousands of deal opportunities every year and this one is sort of standing out just by what it is—bat biology,” Eckhardt said. “I've never seen anything like that in my venture career.”

And while an initial glimpse at the pitch could have brought on a chuckle and a pass from Eckhardt, he says the startup had one thing he couldn’t overlook: CEO Amir Nashat and the Whitehead Institute’s Richard Young, Ph.D. “When they come and knock on my door, I definitely listen to what they have to say,” Eckhardt said. Leaps has previously funded Nashat projects such as Dewpoint Therapeutics and Kojin Therapeutics.

“When I started to look into these bats, we realized all the peculiarities and the specifics about bat biology that is really intriguing,” Eckhardt said. “When I saw that, I was wondering why has nobody else ever done something like that and try to leverage that biology for human health?”

Both Ferro and Eckhardt recognize this is a tough time to be a brand new biotech, with layoffs, pipeline reorganizations and closures rampant. Ferro credits the syndicate of investors’ ability to see a compelling idea wrapped up in something a little, well, batty. He says Paratus has a nice runway now to do what they need to, but of course, “you're always thinking about fundraising, right?”

It’s early days for the company’s pipeline, but Ferro says Paratus would be open to how partnerships evolve.

“We spent the last year building the flywheel and now, we’re starting to get it spinning,” he said. “We may want to do licensing deals, we may want to keep and do in-house the development to some certain stage. I think we want to do all of it right now.”

There’s another reason Paratus stayed in stealth for the past year, according to Ferro. They have a huge challenge to overcome the bad rap that bats get and the perceived danger from meddling with their biology for human health.

“A lot of the information about bats just isn't accurate,” Ferro said. “My hope for the bats and my hope for this company is that as we begin to put out data that suggest and show that bats are really key to helping us to understand and address unmet health needs … for us to change that narrative.”

Ferro, who served in the White House during the early days of the pandemic, said COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 has “done a huge disservice to the bats.”

“I spent a fair amount of time during my tenure in the government working on COVID origins,” he said. “The bats’ role in that has never been shown.”

He stops himself before going down a rabbit hole of SAR-CoV-2 origins, but acknowledged that this will be a very difficult problem to solve as Paratus does its work.

“The issue is, people either want to completely say that bats are these terrible little flying dangers, versus people who don't want to acknowledge that and the truth lies somewhere in the middle,” Ferro said. He hopes Paratus can generate the evidence needed to set the record straight.

To help, the biotech has formed a unit called the Bat Biology Foundation, which works closely with the bat research community to advance the overall science for these mammals. Ferro said the work has “bidirectional benefit” for both bat researchers and Paratus.

The biotech will not be capturing and working with live bats, but instead getting samples from the research community to sequence and build datasets, Ferro stressed.

“Everything I just told you, look at all these amazing attributes of bats that we can learn from and if we actually embrace the bats and work with the bats … it actually starts to change the narrative. But I'm not going to understate how hard that is,” Ferro said.