Belharra debuts with $130M in funding, Genentech partnership

Dive Brief:
Belharra Therapeutics launched Wednesday with $130 million in hand from Versant Ventures and from a research deal with Roche subsidiary Genentech.
The company claims its technology, which it describes as “next-generation” chemoproteomics, can help it more easily identify small molecule drug candidates for treating
immune diseases
Belharra is headquartered in San Mateo, California, with its primary lab in San Diego. The startup is run by biotechnology veteran Jeff Jonker, who was previously CEO of Ambys Medicines and, before that, president of NGM Biopharmaceuticals.
Dive Insight:
Just a year and a half after Belharra was founded by researchers from the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego and Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the company already has significant financial backing.
Versant Ventures funded its $50 million Series A round, while the collaboration with Genentech will give Belharra another $80 million upfront.
Jonker, who also worked at Genentech in the past, described Belharra as the “third or fourth generation” of companies trying to use chemoproteomics — a field of research that tries to parse out how proteins interact with small molecules.
Belharra is standing on the shoulders of multiple companies that have really succeeded, objectively, in the industry,” Jonker said, likening the startup to precision drug developers such as Odyssey Therapeutics and Frontier Medicines.
Identifying suitable binding sites on target proteins can be a challenging task for drug researchers. Proteins lacking easy footholds that small molecules can latch onto often earn reputations as being “undruggable,” limiting how companies can attempt to treat certain diseases. Adding to the challenge, proteins are shape-shifters, flipping between “conformations” that may present different binding sites not captured by traditional techniques.
To screen for new drug candidates, Belharra uses what it calls photoaffinity-based chemical probes to map the interactions between small molecules and proteins. This labeling could help the company identify new druggable pockets on proteins of interest.
Importantly, Belharra says its approach isn’t limited by which type of amino acids are present on its target protein, opening up new opportunities.
“There's a reason that small molecules are having a renaissance right now,” Jonker said. “We have new approaches to cracking some known problems, but with a lot of biology around it.”
The promise of Belharra’s platform drew in Genentech, which previously bought Versant-backed Jecure Therapeutics.
“Our collaboration with Belharra gives Genentech access to a drug invention platform that allows us to interrogate important therapeutic pathways and targets that we strongly believe drive disease pathogenesis, but have proven to be inaccessible to conventional approaches,” James Sabry, the global head of pharma partnering at Roche, which owns Genentech, said in a statement.
Under the terms of the deal, Belharra will be responsible for discovery and early preclinical development of drug candidates in
, immuno-
autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases
. After that point, Genentech will take over for later preclinical development and any subsequent clinical testing.
Belharra retains an option to co-develop certain drugs chosen by Genentech through Phase 1 clinical trials. The company can co-fund the rest of development of those candidates in exchange for a split of the profits.
The combined $130 million in funding gives Belharra a long runway for its research, executives said. After a roller coaster year in the biotech sector, investors across the industry have been seeking safer bets.
“Especially in tough markets where financings are challenging, a platform company really gives you that option to do business development and help build your platform in parallel,” said Rachel Lane, a principal at Versant Ventures and Belharra’s interim chief business officer.