Evolva, a company that aims to take the coincidence out of discovering drugs derived from natural sources, is setting up in Basel, primarily to access the international pool of scientific talent available in the region.
A syndicate of international investors led by Zurich-based Aravis, the trading name of Venture Associates of Zurich, has raised SFr18.6 million in a first round of venture capital for Evolva.
The size of the round, which is not yet closed, is an indication of the confidence the investors have in the firm's potential to deliver returns. Normally first rounds in biotechnology firms are about half that amount.
Co-investors in Evolva include two corporate venture arms of pharmaceutical firms, Novartis Venture Fund of Basel and Yamanouchi Venture Capital of Menlo Park, California, as well as Dansk Innovationsinvestering of Copenhagen.
The company was seed funded by Symbion Capital and Vaekstfonden, both based in Copenhagen.
One of the best-known drugs, aspirin, comes from the willow tree. But it is just a fluke that the tree makes a compound that relieves pain in humans – the compound has a different function in the willow itself. That the pharma industry was able to make a successful drug out of it was also more luck than science.
Evolva says its platform can take some of the “coincidence” out of this process. It uses massive genetic libraries derived from tiny amounts of natural materials, then screens, selects and combines subsets of these genes to make small molecule compounds that could act as functional drugs, such as HIV blockers and anti-obesity compounds.
For compounds that cannot be synthesized, it uses yeast fermentation to make them better able to be manufactured into small-molecule drugs.
“I have never seen anything like Evolva’s approach,” said Jürg Meier, who has been heading the Novartis Venture Fund since 1998 and before that was head of R&D for Sandoz Pharma Ltd, which merged with Ciba Geigy to form Novartis.
Meier adds that Evolva only offers an approach to finding new drug candidates. “It is a mechanism to get leads, then the work really starts,” he said.
But Neil Goldsmith, managing director of Evolva, goes further, saying that he is confident that the approach can optimise the compounds to deliver the final drugs as well.
Jean Philippe Tripet of Aravis, a fund he started after investing in biotechnology and life-science firms for Lombard Odier Darier Hentsch, sees potential for the start-up company to loosen key bottlenecks in the drug development cycle.
"Evolva’s technology offers pharmaceutical firms that are hitting a bottleneck with small-molecule drugs a chance to synthesize them on an industrial scale and to make the derived drugs less toxic,” said Tripet.
Milestones to watch for are collaboration deals and partnership with big name pharma firms.
“Success depends on securing research and development collaborations with customers, such as biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms,” Tripet told Swiss Venture.
Evolva, which was founded in Copenhagen, is moving to Switzerland as part of the deal to tap into Swiss human and life-science resources.
“The proximity of dozens of small biotech firms, the universities and finance available here tends to improve the productivity of a start-up firm in many ways. I’ve worked in other regions of the world and can say that R&D goes faster in Switzerland,” commented Meier.
by Valerie Thompson