Building a bridge to patient benefit
UK biotech garnered record investment in 2021. One of the biggest deals saw Apollo Therapeutics complete a £100m financing led by Patient Square Capital. With a mission to address major unmet medical needs, the fundraise marks the start of a new chapter for Apollo, which started life as an innovative collaboration between six powerhouses of academia and industry.
It was a conversation between the technology transfer offices (TTOs) of UCL, Cambridge University and Imperial College London that sparked the idea for a fund which could help to realise some of the enormous potential for clinical impact that was being created at the universities. Ian Thomas, Head of Life Science at Cambridge Enterprise explains:
“We find ourselves in universities working with brilliant researchers, who are doing research with the potential for spectacularly beneficial human healthcare impact. But there is a lot of work to get it from early-stage discovery to the point where there is even a shot on that proverbial goal to be able to benefit patients. The investment wasn’t there to deliver progress quickly enough.”
Apollo Therapeutics was designed to bridge the gap. Initial discussions focused on what was needed to unlock funding, honing in on the challenge of reducing the risk to investors. Richard Fagan, Director of BioPharm at UCLB, recalls:
“To differentiate what we were doing, we decided to bring in an industry-experienced drug discovery team that would work with us to shape and manage the projects which were taken under the Apollo umbrella, and develop them to industry standard.”
In this way, the translational fund designed by the three TTOs combined the strengths of industry and academia – using the commercial expertise of industry drug-discovery to sift promising projects from the universities’ burgeoning IP portfolios, designing and managing the drug discovery programme to bring them to a point where the asset is ready to license.
Three pharma companies were then identified which were geographically close to the three universities, and with whom they had existing relationships. The proposition was discussed and the pharma companies were keen to get involved.
The first Apollo Therapeutics Fund was launched in 2016 with £40 million in funds (£10 million each from the three industry partners, and £3.3 million each from the three TTOs). Since then, it has invested in over 35 drug discovery projects offering novel and compelling opportunities in areas of high unmet patient need.
The industry partners’ early concern about whether there would be a pipeline sufficient to justify the size of the fund was put to bed within the first three months. Tapping a rich seam of research output, it was soon evident that the scale of the opportunity was more than a match for the funding available, with exciting projects emerging across oncology, major inflammatory disorders and rare disease.
The first out-licensing of an Apollo-supported project came in July 2020, with the licence of a novel gene therapy programme to Deerfield Management Company. Launched as Axovia Therapeutics, it is developing a treatment for Bardet-Biedl Syndrome (BBS), aiming to accelerate disease-transformative medicines for patients suffering from this life-threatening illness.
Apollo’s approach is underpinned by a clear set of principles, as CEO Richard Mason explains:
“We have a large and diverse portfolio of programmes. There’s no specific allocation by disease area or university – each idea is looked at on its own merits. Our decisions are data-driven, so we focus on the areas of greatest unmet need and fundamentally how good the underlying biological hypothesis is. If we think we can do something with an idea in our hands, we make a decision very quickly – that’s an attractive prospect for the academics we work with.”
A new Apollo mission
Despite the novelty of their model of commercialisation in the UK, Apollo has attracted significant investor support. The injection of capital provided by their recent fundraise will allow them to take their ambition one step further.
“Apollo was initially set up to develop these programmes to a certain point clinically, but we began to ask – why stop there?” says Richard.
They now own the licences to the programmes in their portfolio, and as an independent biopharma company, they plan to develop them into the clinic and, where they are the best owner for the medicines, commercialise them all the way through to the market.
Apollo’s new phase has seen them establish a US base in Boston, to take advantage of the talent pool and networks there. The focus is on building the clinical pipeline and driving existing programmes forward. However, the company will also continue to source new programmes, including potential strategic expansion of its university partnerships.
Whilst going ‘full throttle’ in their new mission, Apollo retains the fundamentals tenets that have generated its success to date. Those include a ‘high touch’ relationship with their academic partners, a high degree of capital efficiency, and the fast, efficient decision-making that is necessary to operate a large biotech pipeline. Most importantly, for Richard, the culture on which Apollo was founded will remain integral as it grows:
“What Apollo got right from the start was a culture of deep respect for the academic scientists and deep curiosity about the science. Those values are embedded in everything we do.”
Innovation, ambition and determination to see their ‘moon-shot’ realise patient benefit has characterised Apollo Therapeutics from its inception. It’s a combination that means they will surely continue to be worth watching in the years to come.