Nimbus tackles difficult targets with IT and biotech wisdom
Based: Cambridge, MA
Executive Chairman: Daniel Lynch
Clinical focus: Cancer, obesity and rare diseases
The scoop: Nimbus aims to discover drugs faster and more efficiently than previous biotech outfits, relying heavily on computational chemistry and a virtual business model to hunt down small molecule compounds against difficult-to-drug targets. On top of the tech, it's a people story. Atlas Venture Partner Bruce Booth blueprinted the strategy for the streamlined discovery shop with partners at the computational chemistry outfit Schrödinger. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, an investor in Schrödinger, was an early backer of the company. And last year Daniel Lynch, who lives in biotech lore for leading the turnaround of scandal-plagued ImClone Systems, brought a grounded background in crunching numbers to the high-concept startup as executive chairman.
(Nimbus was also the unofficial people's choice for this year's Fierce 15, garnering far more submissions in our online application system than any other company.)
What makes Nimbus fierce: Nimbus blends new and old business strategies and technology for hunting down novel small molecules, and partnerships over the past year with Monsanto and Shire ($SHPG) have shown that paying collaborators are willing to invest in the company's approach to discovery.
Through founding partner Schrödinger, the New York-based computational chemistry company, Nimbus gets early access to the company's technology and other resources. With software from Schrödinger, Nimbus researchers and collaborators design and test compounds on computers before the chemicals are synthesized and trialed in labs.
Despite decades of work perfecting computational discovery, pharma companies still count on the ingenuity of chemists and the iterative process of testing and refining compounds in the years leading up to clinical trials. At Nimbus, ex-Pfizer drug hunter Ronald Wester is one such chemist, working in collaboration with computer experts to find the optimal compounds against a set of tricky targets.
Atlas Partner Bruce Booth organized Nimbus with a corporate structure that supports the formation of multiple subsidiary C-corporations under an LLC, with the subsidiaries each focused on specific discovery programs. The strategy gives Nimbus shareholders the chance to cash out multiple times based on the success of individual C-corporations, and backers such as Atlas, Gates, Eli Lilly's ($LLY) Lilly Ventures and GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) SR One endorsed the approach with their participation in Nimbus's $24 million Series A round in June 2011.
Nimbus relies on close ties with contractors for lab work and has managed to keep multiple discovery programs alive with a relatively small staff of a dozen employees, Lynch says.
Nimbus keeps under wraps all the details of its individual C-corporations, but company insiders indicated that one such company sprouted from the main LLC as a result of a partnership struck in spring 2013 with specialty pharma powerhouse Shire's Human Genetic Therapies (HGT) group.
The Shire pact centers on the discovery of a small molecule for lysosomal storage disorders (LSDs), which include more than 40 rare genetic diseases such as Pompe, Gaucher and Hunter. Shire HGT, Genzyme and other companies make injected therapies for individual LSDs, and Shire and Nimbus scientists hinted that their small molecule could be taken orally and treat several of the ailments with one drug.
More recently, Nimbus scored a second corporate partnership with agricultural science giant Monsanto, creating a joint entity focused on developing fungicides for crops.
So Nimbus has drawn investments from the world's richest man, Gates, and two of the industry's largest drugmakers in SR One and Lilly Ventures, as well as a pair of alliances with marquee global companies. What Nimbus lacks now are data showing that its unique approach to discovery yields effective human medicines.
"I hate to pat ourselves on the back too much," Lynch says. "We're still a preclinical company. But if you look at our two lead programs, IRAK4 and ACC, they are two targets that are pretty well known and attractive because the potential indications for these are so broad."
Lynch might be the perfect spokesman for Nimbus, providing a voice grounded in the business and financial fundamentals of the pharma industry at a company with many more technical tools and corporate tactics than compounds validated in humans.
The executive chairman also has a valid point about the two lead programs. Take ACC, an enzyme that plays a role burning fat, which could become a target for new cancer and obesity treatments. At the American Diabetes Association annual meeting in June, Nimbus revealed some interesting data on obese rats on its ACC blocker called ND-630, which reduced weight and triglyceride levels while boosting insulin sensitivity.
If Nimbus can show such results in human studies, the company could make a lot more people believe in the power of computational drug discovery.
Investors: Atlas Venture, Bill Gates, Lilly Ventures, SR One and an undisclosed angel investor
Shire strikes discovery deal in rare diseases with Bill Gates-backed Nimbus
Nimbus will use $24M round to create a new biotech model
-- Ryan McBride