Evoq Therapeutics catches the eye of big pharma
Pharmaceutical company spun off from UM in 2016
Mission is to “evoke” a better response by the body to cancer immunotherapies
Led by experienced managed company with track record of successful pharma startups
Evoq Therapeutics LLC, a pharmaceutical company spun off from the University of Michigan in 2016, has a motto: Been there, done that. Its management team has a sterling track record of successful pharmaceutical startups, including two of the most successful in state history, Esperion Therapeutics Inc., and Cerenis Therapeutics Holding SA.
“Evoq Therapeutics is one of the most exciting emerging drug development companies we’ve seen in awhile. They’re developing cancer vaccines that could be game-changing, and they’ve put together an excellent team,” said Chris Rizik, CEO and fund manager of Ann Arbor-based Renaissance Venture Capital Fund, an affiliate of Business Leaders for Michigan. “Having Bill Brinkerhoff as the CEO is really a plus. He was one of the leaders of both Esperion and Cerenis, so he understands how to build a successful drug development company.”
“Evoq” is a play on the word “evoke,” with the company’s mission to evoke a better response by the body to cancer immunotherapies, which promised to revolutionize cancer therapy. So far, though, immune therapies, once administered, are very poorly absorbed at tumor sites. Evoq’s patented technology hopes to change that.
The company uses what it calls a nanodisc made up of a synthetic high-density lipoprotein, also called HDL or the so-called good cholesterol, to which cancer-killing peptides are attached. “The HDL is the perfect size to get taken up by the immune system and trigger an immune response,” said Brinkerhoff, who has a long history of drug development involving HDL. “You can make these great vaccines that are even targeted for you, but how do you inject them and get them well received by the body?”
In 2005, Brinkerhoff co-founded Cerenis Therapeutics in Ann Arbor. The company developed therapies to treat metabolic diseases, including one that raised levels of HDL. It raised $153 million in three venture-capital funding rounds and later moved to Laberge, France, where it went public in 2015 on the Euronext Paris stock exchange in a public offering of about $59 million.
Both Brinkerhoff and Cerenis’ other co-founder, Jean-Louis Dasseaux, previously worked in Ann Arbor at Esperion Therapeutics Inc., Brinkerhoff as vice president of business development from 2002-2003. Esperion was founded in 1998 to develop a drug to boost HDL and was sold to Pfizer Inc. in 2004 for $1.3 billion. When Pfizer pulled out of Ann Arbor in 2008, Esperion founder Roger Newton bought some molecules back from Pfizer and launched a second Esperion, which went public in 2013.
After leaving Cerenis in 2011, Brinkerhoff Joined AlphaCore Therapeutics LLC as head of business development. He later became president and helped negotiate the sale of the company, which made an enzyme to drive cholesterol from the body, to MedImmune, a Gaithersburg, Md.-based division of London-based AstraZeneca.
Brinkerhoff then became a mentor-in-residence at UM’s office of technology transfer, where he helped vet the technology that would lead to Evoq.
The other two co-founders at Evoq also have successfully helped grow pharma startups.
Co-founder Anna Schwendeman, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UM and the company’s vice president of preclinical development, was at Esperion from 2000-2005 and then joined Cerenis, where she was a senior director for 12 years. In 2013, she was named the vice president of preclinical development at ONL Therapeutics Inc., another Ann Arbor pharma startup that targeted the prevention of blindness because of retinal diseases.
“Anna said, ‘I have something I think you’d be very interested in,” said Brinkerhoff. She asked if he would meet her and James Moon for lunch at Cafe Zola in downtown Ann Arbor. Soon they had formed a company. They have licensed one patent from UM and two patents from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.
Moon, the company’s chief science officer, holds the John Gideon Searle assistant professorship at UM and is with the departments of pharmaceutical sciences and biomedical engineering. His research in nanomedicine and cancer immunotherapy while a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led to the successful startup of Vedantra Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that develops nanotechnology-based vaccines for infectious diseases and cancers.
Soon after launching Evoq, the results of a small-animal study published Dec. 26, 2016, in the online journal Nature Materials caught the attention of big pharma.
The study reported impressive results in mice with melanoma and mice with colon cancer tumors, who were vaccinated with something called tumor neoantigens attached to nanodics.
The synthetic HDL discs are about 10 nanometers in diameter, made by a peptide manufacturer on a contract basis. A human hair is 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide. The vaccines generated what are called T-cells that recognized cancer mutations and helped eliminate cancer cells and prevent tumor growth.
Unlike preventive vaccinations, these cancer vaccines weren’t meant to stop cancer in the future but to find existing cancer cells and kill them.
The study showed that on average, after vaccinations, 27 percent of T-cells in the blood of the mice targeted tumors, which is about 30 times the efficiency of current technologies.
Within 10 days, the tumors had been killed in a majority of the mice. After 70 days, the same mice were injected with the same tumor cells, which were rejected by the immune system and did not grow.
“This suggests the immune system remembered the cancer cells for long-term immunity,” wrote Rui Kuai, a UM doctoral student who was the lead author of the study.
As a result of what Brinkerhoff called “inbound interest” from pharmaceutical companies, Evoq has signed what are called material-transfer agreements with several pharma companies and is negotiating several more, he said.
Under those agreements, Evoq formulates cancer vaccines using its delivery technology combined with the companies’ proprietary cancer antigens. The drug companies then evaluate the results in their labs, eliminating research costs for Evoq and leading to potential licensing agreements.
“We have been encouraged by the excellent results, with dramatic increases in immune response shown in the wide variety of cancer antigens that we have tested,” he said.
Evoq has beefed up its team with the addition earlier this year of Greg Barrett as president, who was with U.S. operations of Daiichi Sankyo Co. Ltd. for 18 years, most recently as a vice president; and David Rozema as vice president of chemistry, a 20-veteran of the pharma industry in Madison, Wis., including a stint as program director at Roche Pharmaceuticals.
Evoq raised seed funding of $1.2 million and plans to start raising a Series A round of $15 million next year. It has also got $450,000 in grant support from the state’s Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization program, $200,000 from the Forbes Institute for Cancer Discovery and $35,000 from Ann Arbor Spark.
“We’ve had some investor dialogue. We’ll have a heavy focus on it,” said Brinkerhoff, who said the company is also talking to pharma companies about licensing deals to help fund growth.
The seed round will fund large-animal studies. The A round will fund an FDA Phase 1 study of pediatric cancer patients, testing for safety before launching efficacy studies.
Including in the seed funding was $150,000 from Invest Detroit, a nonprofit investor in early stage Michigan companies, in two $75,000 traunches.
“It’s a novel delivery platform in an area of high growth. They’re trying to solve the problem of delivering cancer therapeutics in an effective way,” said Patti Glaza, Invest Detroit’s vice president.
Glaza said Evoq’s experienced management team that is well known to investors and in the industry for their previous work differentiates the company.
The Monroe-Brown Seed Fund, a $3 million fund endowed by the Monroe-Brown Foundation to commercialize faculty research at UM, has invested $300,000 in Evoq, in two equal traunches.
“Bill has a solid track record. It’s not his first rodeo,” said Hirak Parikh, a program manager at the seed fund.
“The company has a solid scientific foundation and a good business partner who knows how to commercialize it. This could fundamentally change drug delivery. Did drugs fail in the past or did the delivery mechanism?” said Parikh. “They’ve had a lot of interest from pharma companies. Evoq is what you want to invest in as a seed fund.”
Evoq is looking for its own facility in Ann Arbor. Currently, research is done at UM’s North Campus on a contract basis with the university.