Roivant, Arbutus set up RNA JV, put ex-Ariad, Roche executives in leadership posts

Roivant and Arbutus have pooled their resources to create an RNA-focused biotech, Genevant. The startup begins life with RNA delivery technology from Arbutus, $37.5 million in seed funding from Roivant, and plans to take 5 to 10 programs into the clinic by 2020.

Work on the programs will be underpinned by technology and staff honed at Arbutus. The Canadian RNA player has granted Genevant an exclusive license to its lipid nanoparticle and ligand conjugate delivery platforms outside of hepatitis B. Alnylam encapsulated its pioneering RNA drug patisiran using the lipid nanoparticle platform.

Arbutus is also providing the team that will drive efforts to build a pipeline of RNAi, mRNA and gene editing programs. That team will leave Arbutus and work out of an R&D center in Burnaby, Canada. Arbutus revealed plans to close a site in the city last month.

In keeping with Roivant’s other startups such as Axovant and Dermavant, Genevant is led by an experienced management team. Paris Panayiotopoulos, fresh from leading Ariad to a $5.2 billion buyout, has taken up the executive chairman post. On the scientific front, Genevant has persuaded  Bo Rode Hansen, Ph.D., to swap life heading up RNA therapeutics at Roche for a chance to build and advance a biotech pipeline.

The pipeline is yet to take shape, publicly at least, but the details sketched out by Roivant and Arbutus suggest an ambitious plan. Roivant wants to see Genevant take at least five drugs into human testing by 2020 and is willing to add to its initial investment to make it happen. 

Focusing Genevant on such early-stage work marks another step in the broadening of the Roivant model. Having made their names licensing in midphase and later programs, Roivant’s companies have started to do some earlier-stage work. But the broad R&D program envisaged by Genevant is its biggest move up the pipeline yet.