Google, OrbiMed buy into Alector's novel take on Alzheimer's with a $32M round

Under-the-radar biotech startup Alector raised $32 million in Series C funds to support its early-stage work in neurodegenerative disease, recruiting some high-profile investors as it develops a novel approach to brain-destroying disorders.

The latest funds come courtesy of lead investor MRL Ventures, joined by new backers Google Ventures, Topspin Partners and Mission Bay Capital. Founding supporters OrbiMed and Polaris Partners also returned for the round.

With the money, the San Francisco-headquartered Alector is pressing forward with antibody treatments that harness the power of the immune system to fight neurodegenerative diseases. The company's guiding hypothesis is that the brain-degrading processes at play in ailments like Alzheimer's disease are the result of the immune system failing to identify certain pathogens before they get out of hand. Alector's plan is to craft molecules that empower the body to interrupt those processes, approaching neurodegeneration with a tool more commonly employed in oncology.

The company got its start in 2013 with a trio of high-profile biotech minds at the helm: Genentech veteran Arnon Rosenthal stepped in as CEO, joined by Columbia University neurodegeneration researcher Asa Abeliovich as scientific leader and Adimab founder Tillman Gerngross as chairman of the board.

In the ensuing years, Alector's in-house research team has identified 12 leads for new neurodegeneration treatments, Rosenthal said, and the company's latest fundraise will help get two of them through preclinical development. Alector is disclosing neither its initial targets nor its planned timeline for pushing its projects forward, saying only that it will need to roughly double its current staff of 12 along the way.

Meanwhile, the company is maintaining ongoing discussions with pharma partners looking to cut in on its approach to neurodegeneration, Rosenthal said. Alector signed an early-stage deal with Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) last year covering a single asset, and the company is taking a program-by-program approach to the rest of its pipeline, he said, looking to bring in bigger collaborators when it can use their expertise.

But in the short term, Alector doesn't expect to be short on cash. Piecing together the C round was a swift process, Gerngross said, and the company is already talking with investors about a fourth fundraise that should close by the end of the year.

Alector's popularity among VCs is largely a credit to its bedrock science, Gerngross said. As the field gets more and more stratified, breaking down the gene variants tied to various phenotypic processes, Alector is presenting a unified theory of neurodegeneration. And if its antibodies can come through in clinical trials, the company may have found a cross-cutting approach to a global scourge.