Yet another company has joined the Valley’s burgeoning life science cluster with the arrival of biotechnology firm Dantari, which emerged from stealth with a $47 million series A funding round in December.
The oncology company received backing from leading investor Westlake Village BioPartners with participation from several others.
“I think they’re different than a lot of venture capitalists in that they really do understand drug development in a different way than a lot of other firms do because they’ve done it,” Dr. Richard Markus, Dantari’s chief executive and president said of Westlake Village BioPartners. “That kind of support and backing really is a difference that is unique to them.”
Dr. Beth Seidenberg and Dr. Sean Harper, Westlake’s co-founding managing partners, both have extensive experience in the clinical research field.
Markus added that Westlake’s successful track record in the venture space was another reason for trusting it to lead the series A round. The venture capital firm’s portfolio includes other local companies such as Acelyrin and Capsida Biotherapeutics. In September, Acelyrin closed a $300 million series C round to fund phase 3 development of immunology treatments.
“The Dantari team has made great progress in building a world-class platform for oncology drug innovation. Dantari’s proprietary T-HDC platform provides significantly enhanced capabilities for targeted delivery of therapeutics, which I believe will usher in a step-change in the treatment of solid tumors,” Harper said in a statement. “With Richard at the helm and this outstanding team, we look forward to the exciting future for this company and the medicines it will advance for patients.”
The others joining Westlake in the funding were Corner Ventures, Alexandria Venture Investments and the California Institute of Technology.
Home in Conejo
Markus’ professional background is rooted in the Valley; he served as the vice president of global development at Amgen, where he led development for the company’s biosimilar division. He worked for the biotech juggernaut for 13 years, witnessing the growth of the region’s life science hub in the region and deciding to settle down within it.
Basing Dantari in Thousand Oaks was for Markus a clear-cut decision.
“There’s every reason to put (Dantari) here and no reason not to in the sense that we have the scientific talent, the technology from Caltech, and then of course we also have entrepreneurs,” Markus said. “We had the funding from Westlake Village BioPartners, which is local and happy to keep companies here instead of setting up companies elsewhere.”
Harper will chair Dantari’s board as part of the series A financing. Other directors include Markus, Dr. Mark Davis, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, and Atara Biotherapeutics Chief Executive Pascal Touchon.
Atara, which is publicly traded and based in Thousand Oaks, recently announced that it had entered into a royalty-interest financing agreement worth $31 million with HealthCare Royalty for T-cell immunotherapy Ebvallo in Europe and other territories covered by a commercialization agreement with Pierre Fabre. Atara also announced in December that Director Carol Gallagher will assume the role of chair of board of directors, replacing Ron Renaud.
According to Markus, Touchon’s experience leading Atara and working in executive-level oncological positions at Novartis will serve Dantari well.
“My goal with having him on our board was having someone else who is a seasoned CEO but is a few years ahead of our own path,” Markus said. “So, there’s a lot of lessons learned that he could bring to the table, as well as the Novartis and business development background.”
Dantari develops targeted therapeutics for the treatment of cancers such as breast cancer, prostate cancer and other diseases.
The company’s treatment platform allows for a significantly higher drug-antibody ratio, as well as a tunable release of chemotherapy. “The two main differences of our lead product is this high capacity, where we can put 60 molecules of chemotherapy in each drug conjugate, as well as a tuned release, where we can choose what that release rate is,” Markus said.
Standard antibody drug conjugates do not have controlled release capabilities and top out at eight molecules of chemotherapy.
Ultimately, Dantari’s treatment is characterized by chemotherapy that works at a significantly high output while in the tumor. Output is then decreased while outside of the tumor, creating fewer side effects for patients as compared with standard chemotherapies.
The company’s lead clinical investigational product is DAN-222, which is being evaluated in the early clinical trial stage for the treatment of metastatic human epidermal growth factor receptor 2-negative breast cancer.
Dantari’s platform technology originated at Caltech and is based on more than 20 years of research there. In addition, it uses standard organic chemistry manufacturing.
“It is research that’s been progressing at Caltech in Mark Davis’s lab of chemical engineering, that’s where we licensed the technology for this platform,” Markus said. “We licensed it in early 2019, and from there we started a small lab here in Thousand Oaks and hired some scientists and really progressed the technology for this platform.”
One of the company’s initial challenges, which came well before it emerged from stealth status, was finding lab space to progress the science it licensed. Luckily, according to Markus, life science real estate developer Alexandria was looking at the Valley.
“They bought a couple of buildings and started converting them on speculation basically, to spaces that had the power needs, the air handling, the purified water, all those things you need to run a good lab,” Markus said. “Without that we wouldn’t have a place to really start, so that was the key ingredient besides having the funding from the venture capital and the technology.”
Wet lab space has been a factor that the Valley region’s life science cluster has had to deal with in recent years because of the increasing number of biotech firms establishing themselves in the area. Markus said that prior to 2019 there was nowhere to go in the Greater Conejo valley, Pasadena or West Los Angeles for lab space. He added that wet lab space and life science real estate activity has since been bolstered, boding well for companies like Dantari, which has a busy year ahead.
“Even though we’ve announced quite good funding that has gotten us to where we are, we will be also looking to do some additional financing in 2023 to advance all three of our programs,” Markus said.