Adam Goulburn, a partner at Lux Capital, was first struck by Eikon Therapeutics’ pitch to use super microscopes to develop drugs when founder Eric Betzig posed a simple question: How can you understand life if you don’t look at it live?
“It was such a simple statement, but it was kind of eye opening to me,” Goulburn tells TechCrunch.
The environment within our cells is in perpetual motion: proteins twist, turn and shift in place. But this environment has, even under most microscopes, remained invisible.
That is, until scientists Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner developed techniques allowing us to “peer into the nanorealm” inside living cells -- a feat that earned the team a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2014. Betzig, specifically, was the first to develop super-resolution fluorescence microscopy, which allowed the movement of single molecules to be seen in detail.
The movement of proteins within live cells. Image Credits: Eikon Therapeutics
That innovation has formed the basis of a startup that’s been raking in funding since its founding in 2019. Eikon Therapeutics, co-founded by Betzig, is a biopharmaceutical company with plans to use super-resolution fluorescence microscopy, the data collected by these high-powered microscopes and a host of other tools to develop new drugs.
On Thursday, the company announced a $517.8 million Series B round. This follows a $148 million Series A announced in May 2021, and brings the company’s total funding to over $668 million.
New investors in the Series B round include funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments), EcoR1 Capital, UC Investments (Office of the Chief Investment Officer of the Regents of the University of California), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), Stepstone Group, Soros Capital, Schroders Capital, Harel Insurance, General Catalyst, E15 VC, Hartford HealthCare Endowment and AME Cloud Ventures.
The Column Group, Foresite Capital, Innovation Endeavors, Horizons Ventures and Lux Capital, all investors in the company’s Series A round, are returning for the Series B.
“A lot of people throw around the word proprietary technology, but what Eikon, has, in my view, is truly proprietary,” Goulburn said. “We certainly see its ability to give us a unique advantage in finding new biology.”
There’s little doubt that super-resolution microscopy contains vast biological potential, but how does it apply to drug development?
One way to think about it is to recall that proteins do most of the work within our cells: they help send signals, carry out chemical reactions, or transport smaller molecules throughout the body, for instance. When we take a drug, we’re introducing another component into that busy workforce with the hope that it will bind to a certain target, and change what’s already going on inside the body (which, presumably, is causing an issue).
Tools like super-resolution microscopy allow scientists to see exactly what’s happening when a drug is introduced into a living cell, rather than inferring what’s happening through other types of experiments. And, perhaps, it could also reveal new targets that haven’t been visible before.
“We have these super resolution, single particle tracking microscopes that could look into cells,” explains Goulburn. “Then if you add millions of cells in a well, and then add millions of wells, and add millions of drug-like compounds to that well you can really start to explore drug discovery, in the live sense of the word, at scale.”
That said, Eikon has been focusing on the “industrialization” of their drug discovery platform -- i.e. developing a process and tools that allow this detailed protein data to be used to make new drugs, or better understand the ones that currently exist.
This process is being overseen by some of the best in the business: namely Roger Perlmutter, former president of Merck Research Laboratories, who announced his retirement from Merck in 2020. But with this most recent funding round, the company has landed six more C-suite hires.
Daniel Anderson, former VP of biology at Recursion Pharmaceuticals, will join as chief scientific officer. Russ Berman, formerly VP of Engineering at Pacific Biosciences, will join as chief technical officer. Alfred Freddie Bowie, Jr., former VP of corporate and business development at Veracyte, will join as chief financial officer. Barbara Howes, formerly chief human resources officer at Pliant Therapeutics will join as chief people officer and executive vice president. Ashish Kheterpal, former chief information officer of PACT Pharma will join as chief information officer, and Ben Thorner, formerly senior vice president and head of BD&L at Merck Research Laboratories, will join as general counsel and chief business officer.
Goulburn argues that the Eikon’s technology is ready for industry right now. In a press release, John Hall, an investment analyst at T. Rowe Price, also noted that Eikon’s research was already “generating significant volumes of quantitative information about the dynamic behavior of proteins.”
“It’s, in my view, industrialized right now,” Goulburn says. “We’re running drug screens 24/7. It’s the biofactory of the future in my mind.”
The company is pursuing four unnamed target programs and has one undisclosed partner, but Goulburn did not provide specifics on how those programs are proceeding.
With this most current round of funding, the company will look to grow its 100-person team (ideally, doubling in size, says Goulburn), to accelerate the development of its platform and advance the discovery programs already in motion.