Bristol Myers, Genentech and Celgene bought their old biotechs. Stafford and co. are ready for their next $60M act

Jeffrey Stafford, Ph.D., and his team of industry veterans have seen their biotechs go on to be acquired by the likes of Genentech, Bristol Myers Squibb and Celgene. Now, the collective is ready for its next venture: launching RNA biotech 858 Therapeutics with a $60 million series A fundraising.

Backed by founding investor Versant Ventures, 858 Therapeutics will develop a pipeline of oncology therapeutics based on RNA technology with the new funds, according to a company release. The financing also had participation from New Enterprise Associates, Cormorant Asset Management and Logos Capital. 

858’s founding team includes Stafford, Chief Scientific Officer James Veal, Ph.D., and Vice President of Biology Gretchen Bain, Ph.D. The execs come from Jecure Therapeutics, Quanticel Pharmaceuticals and Amira Pharmaceuticals—all of which were launched by Versant and went on to be acquired by Big Pharma. Stafford and co. have helped prepare more than 20 drug candidates for clinical trials.

“The team wanted to return to our roots in oncology,” 858 CEO Jeffrey Stafford told Fierce Biotech in an interview. “We’ve worked on a number of oncology targets together.”

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But that's not all. 858 is emerging with the acquisition of Gotham Therapeutics, an RNA-focused biotech that launched in October 2018 with a $54 million funding round. Gotham, which also counts Versant as an early investor, is developing small-molecule inhibitors of mRNA-modifying proteins for cancer. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. 

“There was a clear synergy between what Gotham was doing and the things that we’ve been interested in for a number of years,” Stafford said. “It made sense to merge efforts and accelerate the development of 858.” 

858's drug candidates include proteins that regulate RNA and immune response. Stafford said 858 will narrow its cancer targets as research goes on. 

“We were excited to back the team in the next venture regardless of what that would focus on, but I think we are even more excited by the focus on RNA,” said Clare Ozawa, managing director at Versant and an 858 board member. “It’s an exciting area where I think the whole field of RNA is really rapidly coming to the forefront in terms of people really recognizing the importance of the place in a variety of different biological settings.” 

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At Quanticel, which was later acquired by Celgene in 2015, Stafford, Veal and Bain helped develop DNA-modulating therapies. Jecure, acquired by Genentech in 2018, was focused on therapies for innate immunity targets to treat inflammatory diseases. And Amira, absorbed by Bristol Myers Squibb in 2011, developed anti-fibrotic small molecules. 

The team helped develop Novartis' Votrient, which treats late-stage kidney cancer and advanced soft tissue sarcoma, as well as Takeda's Nesina, an oral anti-diabetic drug.

“Some of the learnings we had picked up at Quanticel and then tied in at Jecure. With the field exploding in RNA biology, there were clear opportunities to work in that space and also target innate immune activation through RNA biology,” Stafford said. “That was quite compelling to us.” 

The financing will also help 858 expand its headcount to about 40 employees over the next 18 months.