Versant Ventures and Novartis Venture Fund have co-led a £29 million ($41 million) series B round in cystic fibrosis disease startup Enterprise Therapeutics. The financing tees up Enterprise to take three projects into the clinic and push one of them through a midphase proof-of-concept trial.
Brighton, U.K.-based Enterprise is working on three drug targets related to cystic fibrosis and other respiratory diseases. The focus pits Enterprise against far bigger companies, notably Vertex, that have effective approved drugs and promising clinical-phase programs. Despite that, Enterprise has secured the support of cystic fibrosis nonprofits and a clutch of well-regarded investors.
Enterprise CEO John Ford, Ph.D., attributes interest in the company to its different approach to cystic fibrosis, which stands to help all patients—not genetic subsets of the population—by addressing the hydration and clearance of mucus.
“We're not taking the CFTR repair approach. We've gone for other targets. They're what we call mutant-agnostic,” Ford said. “That means we could treat all CF patients and then potentially look at other respiratory diseases where mucus obstruction is an issue.”
Enterprise is working on three targets, two of which involve ion channels. The channels, TMEM16A and ENaC, are involved in the transport of chloride and sodium, respectively. Researchers have postulated that activating TMEM16A could mitigate the effect of loss of function in chloride channel CFTR. And that inhibiting ENaC could improve mucociliary clearance by rehydrating airway surfaces.
In pulling in cash to advance drugs against the targets, Enterprise has secured the support of some heavy hitters. Novartis and Versant were joined in the series B by Forbion, which knows Ford from his previous companies such as Dezima. The U.S and European investors joined with existing backers Epidarex Capital and IP Group, giving the firm an unusually-cosmopolitan syndicate for a preclinical British botech. That is no accident.
“I decided I wanted to go international from the start,” Ford said.
The strategy paid off when Menlo Park, California-based Versant made a relatively rare foray across the pond. Nine of the 54 biotechs listed on the fund’s active and exited biotech portfolios are based in Europe. In adding Enterprise’s name to that exclusive list, Ford has accessed connections that could serve the biotech well down the line.
“If you look at the companies out there, a lot of them reside in the U.S. So getting access to those networks ... is really important,” the CEO said.
Ford joined Enterprise as CEO around 18 months ago when the lockup period associated with Amgen’s $1.55 billion takeover of his previous company—Dezima—came to an end. The appointment gave Enterprise a CEO with a track record of building successful clinical-phase biotechs, skills that complement those of the ex-Novartis researchers that founded the company and built up its pipeline from scratch.
Importantly, Ford, a self-proclaimed “ion channel geek,” is well versed in the underlying science and has experience of taking such drugs into the clinic. With Ford at the helm, Enterprise has built up its development team and pulled in series B money to bankroll its upcoming activities. Now it gets to find out whether the science translates into humans.