Cyclica spins out startup, Perturba Therapeutics, from University of Toronto

Naheed Kurji, CEO, co-founder, and president of Cyclica.
Perturba fuses AI-drug design and biological science.

Biotech startup Cyclica has spun out a company from the University of Toronto’s Stagljar Lab. Called Perturba Therapeutics Inc., the spin-out fuses together Cyclica’s AI-augmented chemistry technology and the Staljar Lab’s biological science.

“We created Perturba to combine our two approaches to drug discovery for many types of cancers that are really recalcitrant to other techniques,” said Naheed Kurji, co-founder, CEO and president of Cyclica.

Founded in 2020, but just newly announced, Perturba builds on previous work Cyclica and the Stagljar Lab carried out in 2019, designing chemistry for a specific biological target linked to non-small cell lung cancer, a highly prevalent and resistant form of lung cancer.

“Pertuba is a young company,” Kurji said. “We’ve shown really early proof points that we can drive new biological insights into potential therapeutic responses, but there’s still a lot of work to do, to get these molecules into clinical trials and to patients.”

Dr. Igor Stagljar, professor at University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine and principal investigator at the Donnelly Centre, said that over the past two years, his lab has developed high-impact, live cell-based technologies for studying protein-protein interactions and identifying novel drug molecules.

“Combining these two technologies with Cyclica’s world-class AI-drug design approach will usher in a new way to conduct drug discovery for highly intractable targets in an unprecedented way at scale,” Stagljar said.

Cyclica is providing initial funding for Perturba and will seek external funding from strategic partners as required. The startup did not disclose how much funding will be required. However, Cyclica did raise $23 million CAD in Series B financing in 2020.

“Right now we haven’t determined how much we will be asking for from the market,” Kurji said.

Cyclica has transitioned its business model over the last several years, raising capital to help fuel the shift. The changes to Cyclica’s business have been twofold: developing a new drug discovery platform to “democratize” access for pharmaceutical scientists and early-stage biotech companies, and creating a pipeline of pre-clinical and clinical companies through a partnership model – with Perturba Therapeutics as one such example.

Cyclica announced a new board for Perturba. Seasoned drug developer Rick Panicucci, Ph.D., SVP at BridgeBio Pharma and a long-time advisor at Cyclica, has been appointed as non-executive chairman of Perturba to help oversee the company’s strategy.

Su Dharmawardhane Flanagan, Ph.D.; Tony Hunter, Ph.D.; and Ming Tsao, MD, have been appointed to Perturba’s scientific advisory board.

“I’ve been involved in drug discovery and development for over 25 years,” Panicucci said. “What I can say with certainty is that the way things will be done going forward is going to be very different from how it was done before. I’ve been an advisor at Cyclica for six years and have witnessed first hand the power of AI and data-first approaches to drive drug discovery fast and with quality.”

Cyclica also announced the appointment of Michael Palovich as its chief science officer, head of drug discovery in early February. Palovich has 24 years of drug discovery experience at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), where he led drug discovery programs spanning multiple therapeutic areas.

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Palovich co-led the team that discovered umeclidinium, a regulatory-approved drug that is used in medicines for the treatment of various respiratory diseases. In his role at Cyclica, Palovich will lead a growing team of drug discovery scientists.

Kurji told BetaKit that Cyclica is a neo biotech company. “Our vision as a company is to build and advance the most robust and sustainable pipeline of assets in the pharmaceutical industry,” he said.

Cyclica focuses on three therapeutic areas: cancer, diseases of the brain, and inflammatory and auto-immune diseases. Kurji called Perturba one of Cyclica’s “key franchisees within the cancer stream,” and promised the startup will “advance novel assets for very difficult, intractable cancers.”

Cyclica has a staff of around 60, with some 50 programs spread over its three main focus areas. Cyclica has previously raised a $4.65 million Series A that comprised an initial $2.25 million in September 2016, following a $2.4 million follow on in July 2017.

The Canadian AI-powered drug discovery space is rich with startups, including such heavyweights as BenchSci, which secured $63 million CAD in Series C capital in January to “expedite” the reach of its technology around the world; and Deep Genomics, which raised $226 million CAD in 2021.

Other notable AI-powered biotechs include Valence Discovery, which emerged from stealth in 2021 and announced $10.9 million CAD in funding; and Gandeeva Therapeutics, which raised $40 million in Series A funding to scale its precision imaging technology.

Along with Perturba, BenchSci, Deep Genomics, Phenomic AI, and DNAstack all have emerged from the University of Toronto or been co-founded by one of the school’s alumni.

Despite the growing number of biotechs in Canada, and the steady infusion of funds in 2021, MaRS published an article in March 2021 that contended Canada has a shortage of talent in the sector. “With investment flowing, the missing link isn’t money but talent,” Kathleen Gnocato wrote. “Canada simply isn’t developing, recruiting and retaining enough senior talent to leverage these new investments. We need to identify, train and win over a new generation of leaders and specialized scientists who can scale these promising startups into global powerhouses.”

Gnocato said the more urgent gaps in talent include clinical research, clinical operations, medical affairs and regulatory affairs. The market is especially tight for scientists with specialized skills and for top-level managers, including chief medical officers and other C-suite executives,” she noted. “That’s what’s forcing employers to recruit further afield.”

She pointed out that three of the top five executives at Cyclica are from the United States and Britain.

Cyclica announced Perturba at the annual Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization Investment Summit and Early Technology Showcase which showcases Canada’s leading innovations in health sciences, including biotech and medtech.

Charles Mandel

Charles Mandel

Charles Mandel's reporting and writing on technology has appeared in, Canadian Business, Report on Business Magazine, Canada's National Observer, The Globe and Mail, and the National Post, among many others. He lives off-grid in Nova Scotia.

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