Novartis joins Atlas in launching a CRISPR Cas biotech with a $15M bankroll

Novartis ($NVS) has joined hands with Atlas Venture to launch a new biotech that has set out to explore the uses of CRISPR Cas9 technology in developing next-gen therapeutics. Dubbed Intellia Therapeutics, the new company has come up with a $15 million bankroll in a Series A provided by the venture group and the Big Pharma outfit, which is intrigued by the potential this gene-editing technology could play in two of the hottest fields in oncology. And the startup team includes the some well-known players in the industry, including the former chief scientific officer of AbbVie ($ABBV), John Leonard.

Atlas Venture partner Nessan Bermingham--Courtesy of Atlas Venture

Intellia is getting started with technology in-licensed from Caribou Biosciences, credited as a co-founder and source of the intellectual property assets, which originated in Berkeley and the University of Vienna. According to Atlas Venture partner Nessan Bermingham, a Ph.D. who's taking the helm as CEO, the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, MA--a big and growing R&D operation--is intrigued by the potential this technology could play in the ambitious CAR-T work being done at their program at the University of Pennsylvania. But he declined to say whether Novartis investigators would be getting directly engaged in the research work at the startup.

Bermingham was much happier to talk about his new team at Intellia, which is now actively recruiting a 25- to 30-person staff for the 15,000-square-foot facility they have now in Cambridge.

The current team isn't large in numbers, but it's "huge" in reputation, says the CEO. Leonard--who earned a $5.4 million compensation package at AbbVie in 2012--had opted for an early retirement when Bermingham met him in Chicago.

"We sat down over lunch," says Bermingham, who walked him through the story, the vision and the planned execution. "As he saw more and more data about the technology, he got more excited and believed as I did that this is a paradigm shift," says the CEO. "We talk about paradigm shifts a lot in this industry, but this really is."

The rest of the management team includes Chief Scientific Officer Thomas Barnes, former VP of discovery at Eleven Biotherapeutics; Chief Technology Officer David Morrissey, former head of siRNA at Novartis; and General Counsel José Rivera, an Abbott ($ABT) vet.

Their work centers on the discovery of the CRISPR Cas system, based on observing host bacterial cells incorporate short bursts of DNA sequences from invaders that can trigger disease. Investigators in the field have been using the Cas9 enzyme to perform surgery, in a manner of speaking, on DNA. Researchers have been fascinated by the therapeutic potential of splicing DNA with their own custom-designed sequences to correct a gene, essentially rewriting genetic coding in the body in order to fix what ails it.

Initially Intellia plans to focus on ex vivo work, where cells are collected from patients and then modified for therapeutic purposes before being injected back into patients--with applications relevant to CAR-T and checkpoint inhibitors. An in vivo approach can later be used to correct genes found inside cells, with applications in ophthalmic, central nervous system, muscle, liver, anti-infective and other disease.

The work is at a very early stage still, but Bermingham says this kind of broad platform should be able to easily accommodate partnerships.

Intellia is taking its place alongside other pioneers active in CRISPR Cas after getting launched with the support of some high-profile venture groups. CRISPR Therapeutics was launched by Versant last spring with a base in Basel and a plan to grow its research operations in London. Editas Technology, a 2014 Fierce 15 company, was launched by a trio of VCs: Polaris, Third Rock and Flagship.

The company is also working with an impressive group of academic founders, including Rodolphe Barrangou, associate professor at North Carolina State University; Erik Sontheimer at the University of Massachusetts Medical School; Luciano Marraffini from Rockefeller University; and Derrick Rossi at Harvard Medical School.