Therapeutic vaccine upstart Hookipa snags $27M round to fund PhI move

A pair of prominent pharma players are partnering up with a few marquee European VCs to back an up-and-coming immunotherapy biotech based in Vienna boasting a new vaccine platform.

Hookipa Biotech AG gained a $27 million round today with contributions from the Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund and Takeda Ventures, with lead investments coming from Sofinnova Partners and Forbion Capital Partners. BioMedPartners also joined the round.

Its money is being earmarked to back a move into the clinic. Hookipa plans to take its lead therapy, HB101--which uses a next-gen viral vector to spur an attack of antibodies and CD8-positive T cells--into a Phase I study for cytomegalovirus (CMV). And it plans to dip into its account to fund the expansion of its pipeline efforts, with an eye to joining the sizzling hot field of cancer immunotherapy.

Hookipa Biotech got started with new technology developed in the lab of Rolf Zinkernagel, the Nobel Prize-winning immunotherapy expert at the University of Zurich. Its big idea is to use a novel viral vector platform to create new therapeutic vaccines that can fight cancer and infectious diseases. And while some of the leading players in the late-stage arena have reported setbacks over the past year, the field is still generating plenty of excitement in anticipation of coming up with new combo therapies that match therapeutic vaccines with checkpoint receptor inhibitors (PD-1 and PD-L1 programs) now in development at Roche ($RHHBY), Merck ($MRK) and Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY).

CEO Katherine Cohen says the biotech has made rapid progress in the two years since it's been set up. The company has two solid factors in its favor, she tells FierceBiotech. First, the therapeutic vaccine technology Hookipa has been developing has a dual mechanism of action, offering greater potency in tackling disease than earlier efforts. And the vast majority of humans haven't already been exposed to the new vectors they're working with, amping up their potential.

The goal now is to explore collaborative opportunities, says Cohen, a vaccine veteran of Intercell AG in Vienna. The company has been focused on CMV for transplant infections as well as congenital infections, and the congenital arena requires the kind of huge Phase III effort that only a deep-pocket player is able to tackle.

"Since Sofinnova's seed investment in early 2011, Hookipa has developed from a scientific concept into an innovative early-stage vaccine company," says Graziano Seghezzi, a partner at Sofinnova Partners. "Cohen's decisive leadership has been instrumental in rapidly assembling a team of experienced vaccine specialists that have made great progress with the Vaxwave technology."  

- here's the press release