UPDATED: Yale biotech spinout launches with $18M and a new approach to cancer

Canaan Partners Venture Partner Tim Shannon

Canaan Partners and 5AM Ventures are launching a new Yale spinout focused on a new approach to shutting down proteins. The two venture groups are putting up the lion's share of a $15 million Series A for New Haven-based Arvinas, which will also get into business with $4.25 million in backing from state agencies in Connecticut, including a $1 million equity buy-in from Connecticut Innovations. Elm Street Ventures also contributed to the round.

Arvinas will build its pipeline around the work of Yale researcher Craig Crews. Crews has been focused on overcoming the limitations of protein inhibition with a new approach: targeting specific proteins and eliminating them from the system. And Arvinas is launching with the assumption that the biotech can carve out an inside track with new cancer therapies, among other disease arenas.

Connecticut, which has been making a concerted effort to revive the drug R&D industry following major cutbacks by Pfizer ($PFE), is providing a $2.5 million loan from the state Department of Economic and Community Development in addition to the million dollars in equity support from Connecticut Innovations and a facilities loan of $750,000. 

"Degrading proteins as opposed to inhibiting them has potential to open up areas of drug development that were previously closed because of the technical limitations of protein inhibition," said Tim Shannon, the CEO of Arvinas and a venture partner at Canaan Partners. "The Arvinas technology platform represents an entirely new class of drugs bringing an innovative approach to treating disease."

The company is building on a natural process in which proteins are tagged for degradation by ubiquitin, a small protein. Cells rely on this process to clean up dysfunctional proteins. The big idea here is that a biotech can use that approach to target particular proteins that play a role in disease, coming up with a therapy that can rely on smaller doses which are more carefully targeted than protein inhibitors. That approach promises to be less toxic and more effective.

As a former Yale staffer, Shannon was introduced by a mutual acquaintance to Crews, and he quickly saw the potential. "Within 15 seconds of hearing the idea, I was hooked," Shannon tells FierceBiotech.

The goal now is to finish assembling a startup crew of 25 investigators, start identifying programs and see about partnering on one or two big pacts with pharma partners which can sign on to see how it could work on a slate of core targets. The initial financing package gives Arvinas a 3.5-year runway, with plans to be in the clinic in the third year. 

"In addition to the fact that a very large portion of proteins cannot be blocked, inhibition is not permanent, so a disease-causing protein can eventually become active again after treatment with a drug," said Crews. "To effectively stop cancer, a drug-binding site must be inhibited 95% of the time, which is currently difficult to achieve. If a protein is removed entirely, that should overcome this problem."

Arvinas will go to work with the backing of a top-notch scientific advisory board, which includes: Daniel Von Hoff, a professor and director of clinical translational research division at the Translational Genomics Research Institute and CSO for US Oncology; Mark Murcko, former chief technology officer at Vertex Pharmaceuticals ($VRTX); Thomas Lynch, director of the Yale Cancer Center; Richard Ulevitch, a venture partner at 5AM and professor and chairman emeritus of the Department of Immunology at The Scripps Research Institute; and Peter Farina, executive in residence at Canaan Partners and former senior vice-president of development at Boehringer Ingelheim.

- here's the press release