In a win for NYC, gut-brain biotech Kallyope launches with $44M

Kallyope CEO Nancy Thornberry

New York's ambitious plans to grow a biotech hub in the heart of its world-class scientific community is being rewarded today with the unveiling of Kallyope, a startup that's being spun out of labs at Columbia University with $44 million in Series A backing from a group of marquee investors.

In the words of Tom Maniatis, a company co-founder and professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Kallyope is all about understanding "how the gut communicates with other organs and our brains about our physiological, metabolic and internal state."

Kallyope is being helmed by CEO Nancy Thornberry, a longtime Merck ($MRK) veteran and diabetes expert who was directly involved in the Januvia program, from concept to life cycle management. Thornberry left Merck in 2013, a few months after the arrival of current R&D chief Roger Perlmutter, joining a migration of execs from pharma to biotech and jumping onto Intarcia's board along the way.

Lux Capital, Polaris Partners and The Column Group are putting up the cash, along with other investors that include Illumina ($ILMN), Tony Evnin and Alexandria Venture Investments. The biotech is taking up residence in Alexandria's midtown research hub in Manhattan, alongside big players like Eli Lilly ($LLY).

The investors have been drawn in by the potential of new technologies to make obvious various aspects of a very complex biology, with sequencing, genetics, circuit mapping, neural imaging and bioinformatics providing new light on the microbiome and more. The company has tapped the scientific expertise of Columbia, Google and Bloomberg to help, with a research focus that includes, but isn't limited to, diabetes and obesity--two huge, vexing and expensive fields. There's also a potential role developing new therapies for consumer health, says the CEO. 

"Our goal is to develop an industry leading platform," Thornberry tells me, "using these technologies to allow us to interrogate gut biology broadly and identify targets."

That's the big picture, but don't look for much clarity about product details and development schedules right now.

"We're not talking about the details," Thornberry adds. Yes, there are a couple of specific programs in mind, with a plan to execute on clinical development. But specifics on drugs and timelines are being kept purposely fuzzy when it comes to what's being publicly discussed at this early stage of development--a not uncommon strategy in the competitive startup world.

Kallyope has a staff of 8 right now, but Thornberry plans to triple that in 2016.

In addition to Maniatis, Charles Zuker and Richard Axel are lending their scientific expertise to the venture. Terry McGuire from Polaris, Lux's Josh Wolfe and The Column Group's Tim Kutzkey are joining Thornberry and Maniatis on the board.

Kallyope joins a burst of startups and more mature biotechs which are reporting venture rounds ahead of the year's end. By our count, investors have committed more than $300 million to a slate of drug developers in a little more than a week, highlighting the sizable new funds that have come into play in the industry.

- here's the release