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On June 11, as the number of people infected with COVID-19 reached 8 million worldwide and U.S. deaths reached 122,000, Tillman Gerngross invited 20 biotech investors to join a Zoom video conference call where he presented plans to start a company aiming to develop antibodies to fight the novel coronavirus.
Even before the one-hour video conference call was over, investors were ready to pony up a majority of the $40 million Gerngross was seeking. The response was so strong that he raised his goal to $50 million.
“Two of us committed to funding live on the call 60 to 70 percent of the round,” said Marc Elia, a principal in M28 Capital, a biotech investment firm that’s among the investors in Gerngross’ new company, Adagio Therapeutics. Elia said such confidence in a new venture is unusual among skeptical, heard-it-all biotech investors.
“It was the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said, marveling.
But then beating benchmarks is not unusual for Gerngross, a professor at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering and an entrepreneur who has birthed a string of successful biotech startups, including protein drugmaker GlycoFi, co-founded with Thayer colleague Charles Hutchinson in 2000 and acquired by pharma giant Merck in 2006 for $400 million.
The idea for Adagio Therapeutics — Gerngross said the name was chosen to reflect the “slow and measured” response required for the global pandemic — was born at Adimab, the private Lebanon-based biopharmaceutical company that he launched in 2007 and is now valued at more than $2 billion, according to one of its original investors.
Unlike the high-profile mobilization to discover a vaccine to inoculate people against coronavirus, Adagio is instead focusing on developing an antibody in the laboratory that would “neutralize” the SARS-CoV-2 molecule that causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness.
Vaccines work by triggering the body to generate its own supply of antibodies to fight a virus infection when it appears, while antibodies developed in a laboratory bypass that step and attack the virus directly.
There are pros and cons in each method for protecting people against viruses — vaccines need to be administered less frequently but tend to have low efficacy rates in older people and are prone to side effects, while antibody injections are usually required multiple times a year but are effective in the elderly. But Gerngross said Adagio takes it as a given that every five or 10 years new viruses will emerge that pose a global health risk.
“We want to offer a solution that is responsive to the larger problem, not just the current outbreak,” Gerngross said last week. “If you think (COVID-19) is the last one, I can assure you it is not. It’s just a question of when the next one is going to emerge. We want to have an antibody that broadly neutralizes the entire class of beta coronaviruses.” (Beta coronavirus, one of four classes of coronavirus, also includes the viral strains known as MERS and SARS.)
Gerngross said that broader approach is what sets Adagio apart from other biotech companies like Eli Lilly and Regeneron, which are focusing solely on COVID-19.
“If we want to be a player, we need to set the bar higher and we need to come up with something that has broad neutralization potential, which nobody else has,” he said.
Gerngross, 56, grew up in Austria, the son of an architect father and sculptor mother, though he spent part of his elementary school years living in Los Angeles when his father studied at UCLA. He earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology at the Technical University of Vienna and spent four years as a post-doc at MIT before arriving at Dartmouth to teach in 1998.
A “hobby” in vintage automobiles and motorsports led Gerngross to acquire the Canaan Fair Speedway, now known as the Canaan Motor Club, in 2013, which he had been able to turn into “a reasonably self-sustaining business,” although a flood last summer that damaged part of the track and the pandemic this year have dealt it back-to-back blows.
“We’ll make it through. It was never intended to be a big moneymaker,” Gerngross said.
A strong roster
To lead the science team at Adagio, Gerngross has tapped Laura Walker, a 35-year-old immunologist who has led Adimab’s antibody science group, which has an industrywide reputation for published research of viral pathogens, including RSV, Ebola, yellow fever and Zika. All the work Walker’s team has done at Adimab on SARS-CoV-2 has been transferred to Adagio, Gerngross said.
Walker, in an interview, said her team at Adimab, after investigating hundreds of variant antibodies, has homed in on one it has dubbed Adagio 20, which they expect to get the green light from the Food and Drug Administration to enter clinical trials later this year.
“We’ve been moving at lightning speeds, even though it doesn’t seem that way in the COVID-19 world because every day feels like a year,” Walker said.
Gerngross said Adagio currently has 15 employees and he expects to “double that number” in the coming months.
Financial backers include Polaris Partners, Mithril Capital, Fidelity, OrbiMed, GV (formerly Google Ventures) and Merck Research Laboratories Ventures Fund. Laboratory work is being run out of Adimab’s headquarters in Centerra Park but researchers are dispersed around the country.
“It’s basically based in our heads and on Zoom calls,” Gerngross said.
One lead investor behind Adagio is confident he is backing the right company to tackle COVID-19, thanks to his track record with Gerngross.
“I’ve been involved in every one of Tillman’s companies and they’ve turned out to be extraordinary investments,” said Terry McGuire, managing general partner of Polaris Partners and former board chair of Thayer.
He said Gerngross has a demonstrated history of “attracting incredibly talented people” at his startups.
With the exception of GlycoFi, the company names have all begun with the letter “A” — Arsanis, Avitide, Alector and Adimab — but, contrary to the image of the inflexible entrepreneur, McGuire said Gerngross “is really good at having conversations about ideas and if things don’t make sense, he welcomes that thought, too. It’s not like it’s his way or the highway. He’s a good listener.”
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