Financing Early-Stage Therapeutics: Interview with Dr. Yvonne Yamanaka of venBio
June 10, 2022 – By Jared Mueller, Director – Mayo Clinic Innovation Exchange
California’s venBio has a different profile from the typical venture capital firm: each member of the investment team holds a medical doctorate, a scientific doctorate, or both. The firm has raised over $1 billion of committed capital since its 2011 founding, and principally invests in therapeutics companies. Dr. Yvonne Yamanaka is a principal at venBio. Yamanaka joined the company after serving on the venture creation team at Flagship Pioneering. She began her career at EMD/Merck Serono, leading the development of an immunotherapy technology that she and teammates had earlier designed as graduate students.
Dr. Yamanaka holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in biological engineering, where she was a Siebel Scholar and an NSF Graduate Research Fellow. She is an alumna of Duke University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering as an Angier B. Duke Scholar and a Goldwater Scholar.
Q: The curricula vitae of venBio’s investment team look different from that of many VC firms: everyone on the team has deep scientific expertise, and each team member holds a doctorate. Can you share how the venBio team came together?
YY: Our co-founders, Corey Goodman and Robert Adelman, have diverse professional backgrounds and previously founded multiple biotechnology companies. Corey is a neuroscientist who spent 25 years as a professor at Stanford and UC Berkeley, founded and led several biotechnology companies, and served as a member of Pfizer’s executive leadership team. Rob began his career as an orthopedic surgeon and then worked in private equity before founding venBio with Corey.
In addition, each of our other managing and venture partners bring first-hand experience in company creation, drug discovery, and clinical development. Since we are a very science-oriented group, we carefully evaluate the science behind companies we fund and enjoy working closely with management teams to develop technology platforms and drug candidates.
Q: As a small team, how does venBio assess the market potential of technologies and therapeutics that may be years away from reaching patients?
YY: From the early years, venBio recruited leading pharmaceutical companies as our limited partners. These companies complement their internal research and development by also supporting and tracking innovative external biotechnology companies that are developing products in their areas of interest. The ongoing dialogue we maintain with leading pharmaceutical companies helps us to evaluate the potential of new therapeutics and technologies and understand what programs could become good strategic fits for future acquisition or partnership.
Many of our portfolio companies have benefited from this strategic alignment with pharma. For example, one of venBio’s earliest portfolio companies, Aragon Pharmaceuticals, was developing a drug to treat prostate cancer, which is a therapeutic area with a large but very competitive market. Based on the profile of the drug and its fit within their broader pipeline, Aragon was acquired by Johnson & Johnson. Johnson & Johnson saw Aragon’s drug through to FDA approval, and it is now on the market as Erleada (apalutamide).
Q: How does your focus on therapeutics affect venBio’s long-term thinking about companies in its portfolio?
YY: Our goal is to develop meaningful new therapeutics. This focus on turning science into medicine is perhaps best reflected by the multiple FDA-approved drugs that came through the venBio portfolio at some point in their development, including Ajovy (fremanezumab), an antibody — invented in part by our venture partner, Jaume Pons — for the prevention of migraine; Empaveli (pegcetacoplan), which was approved last year for the treatment of paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria; and Wakix (pitolisant), the first non-scheduled drug approved for the treatment of both excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy in patients with narcolepsy. We hope many more therapeutics from venBio portfolio companies will join this list in the future.
Q: What breakthrough innovations in healthcare delivery or technology excite you most?
YY: I’m excited about innovations that expand our toolkit of therapeutic modalities. Conventional small molecules and biologics have been the workhorses of drug development to date and will remain core pillars, but innovative new modalities will allow us to modulate biological processes and treat diseases in ways that weren’t possible before.
The broad impact that new therapeutic modalities can have on healthcare became clear in the last two years, as the pioneering work of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna showed for the first time that mRNA could be used as a safe and effective vaccine, with certain production advantages over historical vaccine modalities. Beyond mRNA, there are exciting advances in other nucleic acid-based modalities such as technologies to edit or silence genes that cause disease and technologies to deliver genes encoding therapeutic proteins to various tissues in the body. These technologies hold promise not only for well-defined genetic diseases — where some are already used in approved products — but eventually for more widespread diseases as well.
The use of cells as drugs has also opened new therapeutic possibilities in recent years. Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapies are now approved for the treatment of several hematological malignancies and have already transformed patient outcomes in these indications. I’m excited about the next waves of innovation in cell engineering and manufacturing, which could expand the use of this new modality both in oncology as well as areas such as regenerative medicine.
I’m also intrigued by approaches that take “old” modalities and teach them new tricks. For example, radiation is a well-established cancer treatment, but conventional radiotherapies are limited in their ability to target radiation to a tumor without damaging healthy tissue. New platforms to systematically design targeted radiopharmaceuticals, which consist of a radioactive isotope attached to a tumor-targeting molecule, have the potential to address this challenge and increase the efficacy, safety, and scope of radiation as a therapeutic modality.
Similarly, advances in medicinal chemistry are expanding the reach of small molecules beyond simple inhibition or activation of a target. These novel chemistries are exciting because they can endow small molecules with new functions, including the ability to induce the degradation of a pathological target protein, rescue a beneficial target protein from being degraded or inactivated, disrupt protein-protein interactions that drive disease, or modulate the activity of whole complexes of proteins.
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