Biotechnology venture firms have become more selective about where to invest in recent months, wary of the headwinds currently blowing against the industry.
But that newfound caution hasn’t hurt Orbital Therapeutics, which said Wednesday it raised $270 million in biotech’s largest Series A round this year.
The funds will help Orbital, which emerged from stealth last year partnered with gene editing pioneer Beam Therapeutics, to build its team and select a lead program. It claims its technology could be applied in many different directions, from use in next-generation RNA vaccines to protein replacement therapies or drugs for autoimmune diseases and cancer.
Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Orbital has not yet named specific disease areas it’s prioritizing. However, the financing positions the company to submit its first regulatory filing, like an application to begin human testing, in the next two to four years, CEO Giuseppe Ciaramella said.
“The large raise is to give us some resilience over a few years,” Ciaramella said. “Even though we have a deep toolbox, we don't want to rest on our laurels.”
RNA-based therapies have drawn investors’ attention in recent years, boosted in profile by the success of COVID-19 vaccines built around messenger RNA. Other drugs employing RNA, which help cells make proteins and regulate genes, are approved to treat a number of rare diseases and high cholesterol. But existing technologies are largely limited to disease targets located in the liver, hampering drugmakers’ ability to target conditions that primarily affect other tissues.
A number of startups are now experimenting to make RNA-based drugs that can reach further into the body and last longer. To do so, they’ve relied on guidance from leaders in the field, such as former Alnylam Pharmaceuticals CEO and Orbital co-founder John Maraganore, as well as other industry veterans.
Joining Orbital are two seasoned pharmaceutical executives: Chief Operating Officer Niru Subramanian, who previously worked at Rheos Pharmaceuticals, Agios Pharmaceuticals and Novartis, and CFO Jonathan Piazza, who was previously at Silverback Therapeutics, Goldman Sachs and Barclays.
Orbital employs 39 people across two sites in Cambridge and South San Francisco, offices that Ciaramella said were strategically placed to tap into Boston- and Silicon Valley-area universities.
Arch Venture Partners led Orbital’s Series A round, alongside more than a dozen other investors including a16z, Newpath Partners, Abu Dhabi Growth Fund and Alexandria Venture Investments.
The company’s alliance with Beam allows the companies to use each other's technologies. For example, Orbital can use Beam's non-viral delivery technology to work on vaccines and target certain proteins, while Beam can access Orbital's gene editing research.
In September, Orbital acquired a company named CircBio that owned intellectual property on so-called "circular RNA," a form of the molecule designed to be more stable. It has also licensed delivery technology from Stanford University to target tissues other drugs can't yet reach, Ciaramella said.