A biotech startup co-founded by two UCC graduates has raised $5m (€4.2m) in a second funding round to develop new therapeutics for epilepsy, spinal cord injuries, and other neurodegenerative conditions.
The financing was raised from a group of new and existing investors that included the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which was set up by the late former Superman actor and his wife.
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Axonis Therapeutics – which was co-founded by Cork-born Dr Shane Hegarty and Dr Joanna Stanicka, who met while they were both doing research at UCC – raised $4m last year, from a number of investors, some of whom participated in its recent round together with four VC firms and spinal cord injury foundation Spinal Research.
Hegarty, the firm’s chief scientific officer, who has been based in the US since 2017, said the firm will look to raise a larger financing round next year once it has more research milestones and intellectual properties under its belt.
CEO Stanicka and Hegarty, whose background is in neuroscience and Parkinson’s Disease research, co-founded the business along with three others, including Bob Yant, an advocate for spinal cord regeneration research, and Dr Corey Goodman, a former president of Pfizer’s biotherapeutics division.
Hegarty said that the unique Axonis approach to drug development is based on three independent types of genome screening of 2,000 genes, using viruses and CRISPR genome-editing technology.
“Our aim is to revive neurons and restore control in the lives of patients and their families. Neurological disorders are complex but commonly share three problems: brain cell death, lack of neuron regeneration, and misfiring of neuron circuits, which cause life-long disabilities.
“Our pipeline of neuron-reviving therapeutics aims to enable an internal ability within brain cells to resist degeneration, restore balanced activity, and regenerate. Hopefully, we can transform the lives of millions of people suffering from incurable neurological disorders.
“Ultimately, we’d like to IPO with a range of clinical therapies, and a pipeline of more in development, after applying our screening platforms to other central nervous system disorders.
“Over the next few months, we’ll add four more people to our team of 10 full-time staff, who work with consulting experts and a few interns.
"We’re also growing our advisory board, and longer term would like to move into a larger research facility. We have some pivotal studies under way, with clinical trials planned for early 2023,” he added.
Prior to his move to Boston’s thriving biotech ecosystem, the 33-year-old Corkman had hoped to become a professor and start his own research lab at the University of Limerick.
Last year, after completing research at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard, he also looked at setting up his own biotech startup, and was receiving interest from potential investors – but he decided instead to bring that focus into Axonis.
The Reeve Foundation has two Irish board members – human rights lawyer Simone George, and spinal cord injury research campaigner Mark Pollock.