Clarissa Desjardins knows biotech.
The Montréal-based entrepreneur and neurology PhD founded her first biopharmaceutical company at the age of 26, later selling it to PerkinElmer. Clementia Pharmaceuticals, Desjardins’ third company, went public on the Nasdaq in 2017 before becoming one of the largest acquisitions in Canadian biotech history after it was bought by global pharmaceutical company Ipsen in 2019.
Last year, Desjardins launched her fourth company, Congruence Therapeutics, which sits at the intersection of computational and experimental drug discovery.
The company has now secured $63 million CAD ($50 million USD) in Series A financing for its platform, which designs novel small molecules that can speed up drug discovery for rare diseases.
The startup aims to solve the mystery of how temperature can change the misfolding of proteins.
Desjardins says the drug discovery industry is facing “a watershed moment” where computational tools like machine learning disrupt traditional methods. This computational disruption is where Congruence plays; combining Desjardins’ past in drug discovery with innovative tools that can make discoveries faster and easier.
“Our proprietary computational platform, Revenir, has already demonstrated its ability to uncover novel biophysical features of certain proteins that underpin disease,” noted Desjardins.
The round was led by Amplitude Ventures and Fonds de solidarité FTQ. This is Amplitude Ventures’ third bet on Desjardins, having invested in Caprion Pharmaceuticals and Clementia while Amplitude was still a Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) fund.
“Clarissa brings a renowned blend of team building, scientific knowledge, business acumen, and focus on the patients to her companies,” said Amplitude Venture Partner Nancy Harrison. “That’s why she’s such a great entrepreneur. When you combine that with a clearly defined business scope and a great tech backbone, it was a quick decision for Amplitude to lead the syndicate to support Congruence. Congruence is focused on two very interesting and “hot” areas: the use of machine learning for structural biology and the development of therapies for rare diseases.”
The Series A round also included participation from OrbiMed Advisors, Driehaus Capital Management, both of which invested in Clementia as well. Other investors in the Series A include Lumira Ventures, Investissement Quebec, and other undisclosed investors. Desjardins herself contributed $1 million to the round, and company employees also took part.
Since launching her first company out of grad school in 1992, Desjardins has been active in the Canadian biotech space. In the mid-2000s, she served as president and CEO of The Center of Excellence in Personalized Medicine (CEPMED), a Montréal-based, federally-funded think tank promoting the science and practice of personalized medicine. She also helped establish a VC group within New Brunswick Innovation Foundation, and has served on a number of boards for bio companies and organizations, including Bellus Health and Insmed Incorporated.
The idea for Congruence is very personal for Desjardins, having developed a passion for helping treat diseases after founding Clementia.
At Clementia, Desjardins helped create a drug to treat a rare pediatric bone disease, fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP). FOP is the abnormal development of bone in areas of the body where bone is not normally present, causing the body’s skeletal muscles and soft connective tissues to essentially transform into bone.
“Our platform has already yielded a broad array of potential programs that we’re going to pursue.”
Desjardins reportedly started Clementia after a senior executive of healthcare company Roche, who she was working with at CEPMED, approached her with an article in Nature Medicine about a drug Roche had abandoned. The drug looked promising for treating FOP and the Roche exec reportedly told Desjardins that he would do what he could to facilitate out-licensing the molecule from Roche if she started a company to take it on.
The trials turned out successful, as Ipsen bought Clementia for $1.3 billion after it was approved by The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop the drug. Clementia’s main product was recently approved in Canada, and is under review at the FDA as the first treatment for FOP.
The idea behind Congruence came to Desjardins while she was studying a series of rare diseases and noticed a generalizable phenomenon where temperature could turn distorted cells back to normal – something that is reflected in Congruence’s name, which comes from the mathematical definition of the word: when two figures or objects have the same shape and size.
With Congruence, Desjardins is looking to do what she did at Clementia, but at scale. Rather than one disease, Congruence is targeting a variety of rare diseases – notably diseases that often go overlooked by other pharma companies. Its platform aims to design small molecules to address protein misfolding, which is an error in protein formation that can cause diseases like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.
Congruence hopes to create new pharmacological stabilizers (a class of small molecules) to address the diseases, at “an unprecedented speed and scale.”
The startup aims to solve the mystery, as Desjardins puts it, of how temperature can change the misfolding of proteins. The startup is studying validated drugs, using tools like machine learning to find what is possible before testing those discoveries in a wet lab.
“Our platform has already yielded a broad array of potential programs that we’re going to pursue,” Desjardins told BetaKit.
Desjardins’ latest startup is part of a growing group of Canadian companies operating in the drug discovery space. While each company plays in a slightly different space, notable names include Deep Genomics (also an Amplitude portfolio company), which last year secured $226 million CAD in a SoftBank-led round; AbCellera, which is working on a variety of things, including the treatment of COVID-19; and BenchSci, which works with sixteen of the global pharmaceutical companies and secured $63 million CAD in January.
Desjardins claims Congruence’s financing allows the company to “build out a world-class team of drug hunters.” The 10-person team recently saw the addition of Kenneth J. Valenzano as chief science officer. Valenzano brings to Congruence the experience the startup is looking for as he participated in the discovery and development of the first and only orally-available, small molecule treatment for Fabry’s Disease – approved in Europe and in the United States in 2018.
Congruence plans to double the size of its team, with a focus on tapping into Montréal’s local talent, which the company feels offers a perfect combination of artificial intelligence expertise and biotech.
Image courtesy Congruence Therapeutics.