The alliance between the Wyss Institute and Northpond Ventures has created a new model for investing in early-stage research, and it’s paying dividends
By Lindsay Brownell
(BOSTON) — As 2019 got underway and the team at Northpond Ventures started closing deals, they noticed a trend. Three of the startups they invested in that year had all spun out of a place called the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.
Impressed by the Wyss Institute’s track record of producing investment-worthy innovations in the biotech space, Northpond approached with a proposal: could they fund the Institute’s research directly, to help its budding entrepreneurs navigate the gauntlet of startup formation and get their groundbreaking inventions to market faster? In response, the organizations agreed to create a first-of-its-kind innovation alliance at the Wyss Institute through Northpond’s research-and-development-focused affiliate, Northpond Labs.
Northpond Labs committed $12 million over the course of five years to create a Laboratory for Bioengineering Research and Innovation at the Wyss Institute, which supports translational research projects that have strong potential for success and impact. It also established the Northpond Director’s Innovation Fund, a $3 million fund for promising Wyss projects at earlier stages of development that helps them enter the Institute’s technology validation pipeline toward commercialization. This fund was earmarked to support innovation in areas of joint interest to Northpond and the Wyss, including synthetic biology, biomanufacturing, synthesis of DNA and proteins, and clean water.
Over the last three years, the Laboratory for Bioengineering Research and Innovation has supported three translational Wyss technologies: enzymatic RNA synthesis for therapeutic and research applications, (which launched as the startup EnPlus One Biosciences in 2022), an in vivo screening platform for improving the delivery of therapeutic cells to their targets in the body (Project Somacode), and a nanoscale molecular screening technology to identify activators of protein-protein interactions for future drug development (the Lab-on-a-Molecule Project). All three technologies were selected from the Wyss Validation Project program, which provides funding and resources to enable project teams to de-risk their technologies and bring them closer to the market.
“The support we’ve received to commercialize our enzymatic RNA synthesis technology has been tremendous. The fact that our partners at Northpond see the vision we are working towards, understand the science, and continually support us means the world to us. We’ve developed a great relationship with Northpond – it almost feels like we’re a bit of a family – and we’re so excited about our future together,” said Daniel Wiegand, a former Wyss staff scientist in the Advanced Technology Team who is a co-founder and CEO of EnPlusOne.
“The Northpond Director’s Innovation Fund has been transformational because it supports innovative research at its earliest stages to surface translatable applications for potential future financing,” said Andrew Lee, Ph.D., Principal at Northpond Ventures.
Beyond providing funding, the alliance has allowed Northpond to be much more engaged with the projects and founders it supports than a typical venture capital firm. Their team conducts market research, helps develop plans and budgets, connects Wyss teams with key opinion leaders in their target industries, supports licensing negotiations, compiles lists of realtors who can help secure lab space for their startups, and more. This kind of hands-on support helps companies spin out in a faster, more efficient manner so they can hit the ground running.
“Our alliance with the Wyss Institute has allowed us to build partnerships with founders who we have a high degree of confidence in, because we’ve been with them every step of the way throughout their spin-out journey,” said Mike Rubin, M.D., Ph.D., C.F.A., Northpond’s Founder and CEO. “It’s been a significant investment of time and resources on our part, and it’s been a worthwhile endeavor. We’re excited to see what the future holds.”
During the recent investment market crash, many aspiring founders saw their funding sources dry up, leaving them unable to recover. EnPlusOne’s team, however, was armed with Northpond’s ongoing commitment and hands-on direction, which allowed them to raise a successful Series Seed Financing of $12 million in September 2022, led by Northpond along with other venture capital firms and high-net worth individual investors.
Having found this collaboration in early-stage funding to be a success, both the Wyss Institute and Northpond look forward to continuing to grow and mature their ongoing relationship. For example, the Northpond Director’s Innovation Fund has seen several of its projects go on to successfully earn Validation Project funding, and is gearing up for what promises to be another busy round of applications – about 15 teams applied for the most recent round of funding, up from five in 2020.
“Northpond’s commitment to the Wyss has enabled research that otherwise might not have been done without access to consistent funding and support. We’ve really seen this accelerate the process of technology validation, team building, and business formation, all while building an incredibly beneficial relationship with our alliance partner,” said Angelika Fretzen, Ph.D., the Wyss Institute’s COO and Director of Technology Translation. “It’s been a very rewarding relationship so far, and we’re looking forward to continuing to build our program of direct VC engagement.”