Intellia Therapeutics

Intellia CEO Nessan Bermingham

Intellia Therapeutics
After in-licensing the technology from a gene editing pioneer, Intellia buddies up with Novartis and becomes an overnight leader in a hot new field

CEO: Nessan Bermingham
Based: Cambridge, MA
Founded: 2014
Clinical focus: Gene editing
Company website

The scoop: The fledgling Intellia has gone further and faster in the past 10 months than most biotechs get in several years. It was born with an investment assist from Novartis ($NVS), which has a direct interest in how this kind of gene editing technology can be put into place as it develops new cancer remedies. Some savvy founders at Atlas Venture also recruited former AbbVie ($ABBV) R&D chief John Leonard as chief medical officer. This is the definition of smart; now the company faces the hard work ahead to prove that it can live up to its promise.

What makes Intellia Therapeutics Fierce: Backed from the start by Novartis, which among all the Big Pharma companies in the top 10 seems to be one of the few that knows how to move fast when it finds something exciting, Intellia almost overnight found itself with a crossover group willing to pave the way into an IPO with a $70 million round.

Novartis is already the leader in the CAR-T business, reengineering T cells into cancer assault weapons. The kind of gene editing skills that Intellia brings--with its close intellectual ties to CRISPR/Cas9 pioneering scientist Jennifer Doudna (see our related story on CRISPR Therapeutics)--could bear significant fruit in the clinic.

Running the research is CMO Leonard, who joined the recent migration of pharma R&D execs and left his job at AbbVie for the startup. Biotechs are where it's at right now in terms of cool new science and considerable near-term payoffs. And with these kinds of stakes on the table, it's no wonder that this company has been able to attract considerable talent to the ranks.

Unlike rival Editas, though, Intellia still isn't talking about just what will go into the clinic first. This is a competitive field, and there's just so much you can reveal early on. With this much at stake, no one wants to screw things up now. 

Like its rivals, Intellia has concentrated heavily on rapidly building up a big research team. There are about 50 staffers on board now, says Jean-Francois Formela, a partner at Atlas Venture and a member of the board at Intellia who's played an instrumental role in creating the company. And by the end of next year that number will rise to 75 or more.

"We've been careful not to share what targets we selected so far," says Formela. But there is a mix of ex vivo and in vivo projects while Intellia pursues new talks about additional partnerships. Novartis is clearly heavily interested in the application this tech has on CAR-T, engineering T cells as cancer attack weapons.

"It is quite clear that there will be an evolution of the technology," he adds, but none of that will block Intellia from practicing the art of CRISPR/Cas9. New technology can be adopted, as needed, when the time is right.

Formela is also looking forward to the day when the dispute over the IP is resolved and everyone in the field can push ahead with development projects. "It would be good if the IP thing was settled in a reasonable way," he says, but these things take time. Intellia isn't waiting around for the lawyers to wrap up.

Investors: OrbiMed HealthCare Fund Management led the big round, with help from Fidelity Management and Research Company, Janus Capital Management, Foresite Capital, Sectoral Asset Management, EcoR1 Capital and other unidentified leading investors. Founding investors Atlas Venture and Novartis also jumped in.

For more:
CRISPR player Intellia looks IPO-ready after $70M round
Novartis adopts a CRISPR-Cas9 partner and jumps into the hot new R&D field
A biotech war is brewing over control of the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 tech
Top research institutions hand hot gene-editing tech--with a catch--to Editas

-- John Carroll (email | Twitter)

Intellia Therapeutics