Polaris adds $450M to this year's blockbuster bonanza of new biotech funds

Polaris Partners, an ambitious venture investor that's been behind a legion of cutting-edge biotech startups, has come up with $450 million for its latest fund. The cash tops the $400 million mark that the VC had outlined in an SEC filing last summer, signaling another success for the year's blossoming class of new biotech venture funds.

Polaris's last fund managed to attract a more cautious group of institutions, which put up $375 million in the risk-averse days of 2011. Since then, though, a booming stock market has showered billions of dollars on biotech IPOs, which turned from cold to hot almost overnight in early 2013. In Polaris's case, a series of acquisitions for portfolio companies has also helped. 

The venture group has helped bankroll Editas, a new gene-editing venture that recently recruited Avila vet Katrine Bosley to the helm, as well as Navitor--targeting the mTORC1 pathway involved in a variety of diseases. Polaris seeded Navitor, then brought together a group of backers that includes GSK's SR One.

Polaris has some of the closest ties to academia in the industry.

Robert Langer

I asked MIT's serial entrepreneur Robert Langer--who's started more than 20 companies with the venture group's help--what distinguishes Polaris from other VCs.

"Great judgment," Langer shot back by e-mail. "Also treating people great, with many people working with them a 2nd, 3rd, 4th time."

Amir Nashat, managing partner of the Boston office for Polaris, says a lot has changed in biotech in recent years to make this a great environment for raising a new venture fund.

While the quality of the science coming out of leading institutions like MIT, Harvard and Berkeley is as great as ever, academics are able to pin down a lot more drug data at a very early stage, says Nashat, who adds that about a third of the new fund will be devoted to biotech. "Some of them already have a molecule in hand."

While there's also been a big shakeout of VCs in recent years, he adds, corporate venture groups have also come a long way, and all of them now enjoy participating in the kind of startup rounds that Polaris specializes in. Add to that a much more mature environment to operate in, with a big set of service providers and CROs able to lend an expert hand to fledgling startups, and the current biotech era stands in sharp contrast to earlier times.

In recent weeks and months Arch Venture launched a $400 million-plus fund, Venrock announced a $450 million fund, Sofinnova came up with $500 million and Versant is nearing a $300 million fund. There are others. Add them all up and you have billions of dollars that will be used for new venture rounds over the next 5 years. -- John Carroll, editor-in-chief (email | Twitter)