In the biotech world, as in mythology, unicorns are rare and awe inspiring. Defined as private companies valued at $1 billion or more, unicorns can be found in all industries and are sometimes wildly successful. But for every Moderna and Airbnb, there are many more unicorns that fizzle out or go up in flames like Elizabeth Holmes’ fraudulent Theranos.
Here, we’re looking at the latest news about four current and former biotech unicorns.
In May 2016, Fortune reported that Boston-based Intarcia Therapeutics was valued at $5.5 billion and that its potentially “revolutionary new treatment” for Type 2 diabetes could be approved and sold to patients by late 2017.
That bullish prediction never came to pass, and now, after years of being dogged by safety issues, the former unicorn’s drug-device combination product ITCA 650 has been dealt yet another blow. An FDA advisory panel unanimously voted last week against recommending the product because of potential side effects.
The panel’s thumbs down came from worries about kidney injuries and cardiovascular side effects that might occur if the tiny, implanted osmotic pump released diabetes drugs unevenly over its proposed six months of treatment.
Intarcia has suffered two previous FDA rejections and the panel’s vote comes just weeks after a private company, i2o Therapeutics acquired Intarcia’s assets, including ITCA 650, and named Intarcia’s longtime leader Kurt Graves CEO, president and char.
With its plans to “de-extinct” the woolly mammoth and other long-gone creatures, gene editing company Colossal Biosciences has attracted lots of media attention, money and even an investment from the CIA. It’s raised $225 million in total funding since 2021, including an oversubscribed $150 million Series B financing in January. In June it was named to the 2023 TIME 100 Most Influential Companies list, and last year, it was selected as one of the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers. And Colossal has done all this without resurrecting a single dodo, mammoth or Tasmanian tiger.
However, Colossal says its technology has broad potential beyond de-extinction. For instance, it’s already spun off another company, the computational life sciences platform Form Bio, which Claire Aldridge, Form Bio’s chief strategy officer, told PharmaVoice could achieve goals ranging from “identifying a CRISPR-based drug to actually go in and edit somebody’s genome,” and potentially engineering “pest-resistant traits into an agricultural crop.”
Colossal isn’t just trying to reverse extinction — it’s also applying the technology to prevent extinction. The company is working with BioRescue to save the northern white rhino from extinction and with Elephant Havens Wildlife Foundation to use AI for elephant care and reintroduction methods. Colossal also worked with the Vertebrate Genomes Project to become the first to successfully sequence the entire Asian elephant genome.
With AbbVie’s former president and chief scientific officer at the helm, the Flagship Pioneering-backed biotech Tessera Therapeutics has been raking in the cash. The company’s “gene writing” technology includes multiple tech platforms that Tessera says can correct single nucleotides; delete or insert short sequences of DNA; and write entire genes into the genome to cure diseases “at their source.”
In April 2022, the company raised more than $300 million in Series C financing after it had previously raised $230 million in Series B financing in January the year before. In addition, the company presented data at the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy in May showing advances in gene rewriting to correct pathogenic mutations responsible for phenylketonuria, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency and sickle cell disease.
However, the news around Tessera hasn’t been all rosy. The company has been criticized for a lack of information about the specifics and details of its technology, and has also been questioned about gene writing’s supposed similarities to another technology called prime editing, which experts say could kick off patent battles.
Cambrian BioPharma has a multilayered business model targeting chronic diseases of aging with a number of drug candidates in various stages of preclinical and clinical development. But it’s also a VC fund and biotech incubator for pipeline companies.
Just this year, Cambrian launched three of those companies, including Amplifier Therapeutics in March, which will develop ATX-304, a pan-AMPK (AMP-activated protein kinase) activator. AMPK is a hot target — Eli Lilly is working with the biotech Nimbus Therapeutics on an AMPK development deal that could be worth almost $500 million.
In addition to Amplifier Therapeutics, Cambrian this year launched Telos Biotech, which will develop a novel recombinant protein delivered intracellularly during the ex-vivo manufacturing of CAR-T cells, and Isterian Biotech, a startup working to develop first-in-class small molecule inhibitors of transglutaminase 2.
In October 2021, Cambrian closed an oversubscribed Series C financing, which raised $100 million, bringing its total to roughly $160 million since the company was founded in 2019.