September 22, 2014
Spero takes the lean-and-mean, build-to-buy approach to creating a new antibiotics biotech
CEO: Ankit Mahadevia
Based: Cambridge, MA
Clinical focus: Antibiotics
The scoop: In early September, Harvard Medical School professor Laurence Rahme gave a presentation at the annual meeting of ICAAC to talk about the MVfR pathway. Blocking the MVfR pathway has the potential to scramble a communication system that bacterial pathogens use to circumvent the current generation of antibiotics in use. Rahme and her team are working on new molecules that prevent the creation of antibiotic-tolerant cells, halting persistent infection in mammalian models. And if she’s right, Rahme can help give medicine a whole new way to fight acute and persistent Gram-negative bacterial pathogens like Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
To get there, Ankit Mahadevia, a partner at Atlas Venture, has created Spero Therapeutics, assembling a brain trust of some of the leading figures in infectious diseases. In addition to Rahme, there’s Glenn Tillotson, Gordon Archer, Idenix ($IDIX) CSO Jacques Dumas, Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) vet Eric Gordon and others.
What makes Spero Fierce: Using a seed round of only $3 million, Spero has lured in Roche’s pRED group based in Basel, which has taken an early-stage buyout option on the lead program, one of several new ventures aimed at getting the pharma giant ($RHHBY) back into the antibiotics field. And Roche is actively engaged in the development work, offering nondilutive financial support to get this program pointed toward the clinic.
Spero is one of a full slate of 15 lean-and-mean startups that have been launched at Atlas Venture’s incubator in Cambridge, MA, over the past 18 months, says partner Bruce Booth. While the IPO wave has helped pump billions of dollars into the biotech industry, Atlas partners are outspoken champions of the virtual approach to launching new companies. And if Roche does go ahead and nab this lead project, Spero still plans to set up additional pipeline projects to grow the company.
Just don’t expect Atlas to start throwing around a lot of big money.
“Equity is the currency of biotechnology,” says Booth. And Spero has used it to good advantage in gathering a top group of experts in the field.
“We see this as the perfect way to get this program off the ground and also lay the groundwork for us to move our other programs forward,” Mahadevia told FierceBiotech when the Series A was wrapped earlier this year. As an LLC, Spero can spin out assets as it likes. “If Roche buys it, we’ll keep going.”
CSO Tom Parr has been here before. He helped push oritavancin through Phase III while at Targanta, one big stage during a clinical odyssey for that antibiotic, which finally won approval earlier this year. It’s one of a number of antibiotics he’s worked with. And Michael Pucci, the head of biology at Spero, is an antibacterial vet with stints at Achillion and Bristol-Myers.
Antibiotics are in such short supply in part because Big Pharma pulled out of the field years ago, put off by the thin margins and the tough development effort that went into each new program. Booth says the FDA has gone a long way to clearing the regulatory roadblocks and setting up new incentives for antibiotic development in the GAIN Act of 2012. Regulators added market exclusivity and laid out a path to priority reviews to help spawn new research and development. But even with the new incentives, antibiotics remains a tough field.
Spero will now see if it can carve out a place for itself as a first-in-class player in the field, proving that you can pursue some big goals without using a big budget. And along the way, they’re helping advance a biotech/pharma partnering model on build-to-buy projects that’s likely to be used for dozens more such companies in the biotech wave that’s forming now.
Investors: Atlas, the Partners Innovation Fund and GlaxoSmithKline’s SR One