Biogen, Sanofi back Tony Coles' neurodegeneration player Yumanity

Tony Coles

For much of 2015, Tony Coles funded his neurodegeneration-focused startup Yumanity out of his own pocket. Seed money followed. And today he's pulling the veils off a $45 million A round designed to get him through the preclinical stage of identifying his top programs and on the way to further enlivening a growing field.

By his own account, Coles is going long on this one. 

"I see no reason that we can't build this into a commercial enterprise," says Coles, the former CEO at Onyx, who knows something about company building in biopharma. He also knows that there's a long road ahead before anyone starts counting revenue at his fledgling operation.

Joining him for the journey are a couple of big biopharma investors: Biogen ($BIIB), which has helped excite the Alzheimer's field with aducanumab, and Sanofi-Genzyme. Fidelity Management & Research led the syndicate, joined by Redmile Group, Alexandria Venture Investments and Dolby Family Ventures.

"There's a mix of crossover institutions and strategic investors, and we like that particular mix," says Coles, whose startup was named a Fierce 15 biotech in 2015.

The investors are backing one of the latest in a string of new biotechs that have been jumping into neurodegeneration, a field pockmarked by a series of clinical blowups over the past decade as diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's have proved devilishly difficult to treat. More recently, advances in genomics and biomarkers have started to open new doors in neurodegeneration R&D, and Celgene ($CELG) CEO Bob Hugin noted at the recent J.P. Morgan confab that any company that expects to be a major player a decade from now will almost have to have a presence in the field.

"Bob is spot on," agrees Coles, who's been seeing the kind of research intensity starting to take root that is reminiscent of the '90s, when HIV and cardiovascular R&D were in the spotlight.

Yumanity spread a wide net in its talent hunt for the new company, which now employs 20 people. More than 900 applications came in, and Coles is also glad to see that there's a good gender mix, with 55% of the staff roster female.

They'll be exploring how protein misfolding -- Yumanity co-founder Susan Lindquist's focus at MIT -- sets the stage for neurodegeneration, searching for drug candidates that can have an impact on some terrible diseases that afflict millions.

Special Report: FierceBiotech's 2015 Fierce 15 - Yumanity Therapeutics