Accelerator's $48M biotech project looks to spark the NYC startup scene

Seattle-headquartered Accelerator is aiming to kick-start New York City's nascent biotech ecosystem, leading its group of big-name investors to back a $48 million funding round for a local upstart.

Drawing on a syndicate that includes Eli Lilly ($LLY), AbbVie ($ABBV) and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), Accelerator launched Petra Pharma, a company tapping the expertise of some decorated biotech experts with hopes of developing new therapies for cancer and metabolic disease.

Petra's scientific co-founders are Harvard Medical School professor Nathanael Gray and Weill Cornell Medicine cancer chief Lewis Cantley, who is credited with discovering a key oncology target called PI3K back in 1984. Relying on a partnership with Weill Cornell, Petra said it's investigating a group of "novel enzyme targets" that play a role in cell growth, division and signaling, otherwise keeping details of its work under wraps for now.

Accelerator, which opened up its New York operation in 2014, is handling management duties for the fledgling company as it staffs up and gets its lab in order. The $48 million A round should get Petra through the human proof-of-concept stage with its lead program, Accelerator CEO Thong Le said, and if all goes according to plan, the company may eventually spin out into an independent operation.

In the meantime, Petra will be building the case for its scientific platform at the Alexandria ($ARE) Center for Life Science, a roughly 700,000-square-foot mix of lab and office space in New York that is already home to R&D teams from Lilly, Roche ($RHHBY), Pfizer ($PFE) and others.

Locking up lab space in Alexandria's complex on the eve of its launch will help Petra hit the ground running as quickly as possible, Le said, and Accelerator is counting on the presence of neighboring innovators to inspire the company's work and spark future collaborations. Weill Cornell, Petra's partner in a multiyear alliance, is just "a 5- to 10-minute cab ride away," Le said, and R&D veterans from Lilly and Pfizer will share the company's address.

Petra is Accelerator's first company launch in what the group hopes will become a thriving scene for biotech startups in New York. Despite being the seat of the world's largest economy, the city has never developed into a life sciences hub on the order of San Francisco or Cambridge, MA, a fact many have blamed on a relative lack of interest from the investor community.

But Le believes that's all about to change, as years of company-creation efforts from Accelerator and others are have created opportunities for a coming generation of innovative upstarts.

"We're hoping that will draw the talent and attention the ecosystem needs to take it up a notch or two," Le said.

Alexandria's venture arm is a member of the Accelerator-partnered syndicate bankrolling Petra's launch, joining Arch Venture Partners, Pfizer Venture Investments, Harris & Harris Group, Innovate NY Fund, the Partnership Fund for New York City, Watson Fund and WuXi PharmaTech.

- read the announcement