Can a three-year-old biotech spin-out from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory offer a glimpse into the future? Envisagenics certainly hits on some major trends in its technology, location, and inaugural financing round.
The startup is in the business of RNA splicing, a complex, data-intensive field that necessitates a healthy dose of artificial intelligence (AI). It’s also based in New York City, a growing biotech hub, and it rallied a $2.35 million seed round from predominantly female investors.
That last feature was a coincidence, said to Co-founder and CEO Maria Luisa Pineda.
“We actually didn’t realize that until we started putting the press release together and counting [the female VCs],” Pineda said in a phone interview.
Envisagenics’ round was led by Daniella Kranjac, co-founder and managing director of Dynamk Capital; Shana Fisher, founder of Third Kind Venture Capital (3KVC); and Gillian Sandler of Cosine. Dolby Family Ventures and SV Angels also backed the team.
Pineda credits a lot of the introductions and mentorship to three other females; Lindy Fishburne, Hemai Parthasarathy, and Julia Moore, who run the Breakout Labs accelerator that helped Envisagenics grow.
On its own, the all-star female line-up can’t be called a trend. But it is noteworthy that the team attracted so many female investors and mentors without trying. Women in STEM are no longer few and far between — at least in this area of science.
Going beyond DNA
Envisagenics’ cloud-based platform, SpliceCore, is aimed to be a one-two punch that the team is now pitching to industry partners. The software identifies RNA splicing errors and then guides the discovery and development of targeted drugs that can mitigate the errors found.
For those not familiar with RNA science, there are a couple of key steps. Before proteins can be synthesized, our DNA must be transcribed into RNA. That RNA then undergoes splicing to cut out certain sequences (known as introns) that aren’t required for the eventual protein. What’s left are the exons, which are sewn together through the splicing process to create messenger RNA (mRNA), the instructions for protein production.
But it’s not always the same recipe. It is estimated that around 95 percent of RNA transcripts undergo ‘alternative splicing,’ which means one gene can produce a range of different mRNA that, in turn, synthesize different proteins. Some of those proteins don’t function properly. Some cause, or allow for, diseases such as cancer.
While DNA is largely fixed, RNA-splicing involves a complex and murky mix of variables. And that’s where AI comes in, explained Martin Akerman, Envisagenics’ co-founder and chief technology officer.
“What we try to do is predict something that happens inside of cells,” Akerman said during the phone interview.
The software deduces what’s going on by using a variety of data such as DNA sequences, protein structures, and biologic and metabolic pathways, he said. On their own, none of these datasets are sufficient, but they can all give clues about RNA splicing. AI is then used to ‘weigh’ or evaluate those different sources of information to solve the mystery of gene expression.
“A computer can solve a mystery millions of times per minute, which means the computer can test millions of hypotheses until it finds the right one,” Akerman said.
As knowledge of this field grows, RNA splicing could become a mainstay in the diagnosis and treatment of many diseases. According to Pineda and Akerman, it may even help to explain why some patients don’t respond to targeted therapies that should work based on their DNA.
In other words, AI will be a critical part of that journey, so the hype will likely stick around for some time.
Surviving in New York City
Will this future world of science take place in New York City? It used to be a tough sell, given the sky-high rents and cost of living, along with the draw of established hubs such as Boston. Increasingly, however, the local government wants to change those perceptions.
Envisagenics was one of the first life science companies to gain investment from the New York State Innovation Venture Capital Fund. It falls under the umbrella of the $100 million Empire State Development (ESD) fund, established in 2014 with an aim to foster innovation and economic growth in the city.
More recently, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio launched ‘LifeSci NYC,’ a $500 million initiative designed to boost the local biopharma ecosystem through cash injections and tax incentives.
More infrastructure is also cropping up. In 2016, Envisagenics was one of 19 startups accepted into Grand Central Tech (GCT), an accelerator program in the heart of New York City. The perks include one year of free rent for up to 20 employees. After that, the team simply moved upstairs to the 16th floor.
Pineda said she is confident the company can scale without moving to a cheaper area or a more established biotech hub. In this case, it may be smarter to be a big fish in a small biotech cluster with plenty of local funding and support (even if that small cluster is, in fact, the Big Apple).
Photo: a_crotty, Getty Images
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