Flagship’s latest startup emerges with a plan for ‘smarter biologics’

Table of Contents

diving letter:

  • Ampersand Biomedicines, a biotechnology startup focused on so-called programmable drugs, comes out of the smokescreen with $50 million from Flagship Pioneering.
  • Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ampersand plans to use insights from computer tools to create drugs that work directly at the site of the disease, sparing healthy tissue. However, the company offered scant details about what it is working on and little guidance on the diseases it will target.
  • The launch of Ampersand comes at a time when platform companies, particularly those with long development timelines, are receiving more scrutiny from biotech investors than in previous years. Some of Flagship’s own startups have been forced to limit research, downsize, and even close their doors.

Dive insight:

Drug developers all have the same goal: to create a drug that can help treat a patient’s illness without causing harm.

But human biology is incredibly complex. Drugs designed to solve one problem unknowingly cause another. For example, the many “precision” cancer drugs that have hit the market in recent years often come with long lists of side effects.

Ampersand, which was founded two years ago and is now led by former Rubius Therapeutics president Avak Kahvejian, is trying to take the guesswork out. The company claims to have developed what it calls an “address map” that can show where certain proteins are located in the body, and then developed drugs that only go to those areas.

By doing this, Ampersand hopes to find safer drugs — what Kahvejian called “smarter biologics” — for a variety of different diseases.

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“It’s not enough to know where something is,” Kahvejian said. “You also want to understand fairly comprehensively where it’s not, so you can get targeted effects without the extra-tissue targeted toxicity that can come with it if you haven’t set that path.”

Ampersand’s goals far exceed what it is able to show, at least publicly. The company is currently “prototyping” the drugs it will eventually develop, Kahvejian said. In 2023, the company aims to generate preclinical data for these programs as it develops its platform, he added.

Flagship is known for companies in the shape of the ampersand. For more than two decades, it has launched platform companies with big ambitions. One of its biggest successes is Moderna, which became one of the most valuable companies in the industry after developing its COVID-19 vaccine.

But Flagship has seen some of its other companies stumble. In recent years, Kaleido Biosciences and Rubius, two previously well-funded drugmakers, have announced plans to wind up. In September, Vesalius Therapeutics laid off more than 40% of its employees. Other flagship startups like Sana Biotechnology and Repertoire Immune Medicines have also cut staff.

Kahvejian, a 12-year flagship veteran whose resume includes senior positions at a handful of other biotechs backed by the venture firm, said unexpected results are “given.”

“We often tell each other all this [teams] has a component of repeatability and maybe a playbook, but they also have a high level of navigation in uncharted waters,” Kahvejian said.


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