Company News

Berkeley Startup Raises $28M, Nabs Ex-Zosano Chief as CEO as It Aims for the Eye

From the story by Ron Leuty in the San Francisco Business Times.

An East Bay startup raised $28 million and hired a seasoned CEO as it focuses its UC Berkeley-developed technology on the eye to help patients with blinding diseases go longer between critical treatments.

In doing so, Valitor Inc. and its platform technology — spun out of the work of University of California professors Kevin Healy and David Schaffer — looks to take on big players in the ophthalmology space, namely Genentech Inc. and its wet age-related macular degeneration drug Lucentis and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc.’s Eylea.

But company leaders, including new CEO Steven Lo, say the goal in moving wet AMD patients from one shot every month or three months to once every six months is important for patients as well as the company’s platform aspirations.

The 10-employee company’s lead program, called VLTR-557, centers on its ability to decorate a long, single biopolymer strand with multiple molecules, a technology it calls multivalent polymer, or MVP. That creates a novel drug engineered to more effectively and efficiently hit a target and be more durable while also matching current wet AMD drugs’ safety.

The company was started by Healy, Schaffer and Wes Jackson, who received his bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from UC Berkeley. Jackson went on to get his master’s and Ph.D. from UCSF and then worked with companies on preclinical and clinical development plans. When he returned to the Bay Area, he huddled with his faculty advisors, including Healy and Schaffer, on how they could build on the MVP technology, meet manufacturing challenges and find a good product fit.

“Investors agreed this was a really strong platform,” Jackson said.

So, too, did Lo, who most recently led Zosano Pharma Corp. as it tried unsuccessfully to navigate its migraine-treating patch through the Food and Drug Administration approval process. Zosano was sold in August through U.S. Bankruptcy Court to Emergex USA Corp.

Lo was drawn to the work Valitor had done to make antibody drugs be more durable.

“One of the first areas is ophthalmology, which has some big players,” Lo said. “But we have a better technology.”

The company launched in the mid-part of the last decade in the UC Berkeley on-campus incubator of QB3 — the UC entity now led by Schaffer that is charged with helping academic discoveries find a commercial audience — but currently is in the Bakar BioEnginuity Hub at Berkeley. It is in the process of lining up its own space in West Berkeley.

Helping Valitor prove out the technology is VLTR-557 — an antibody designed to stop vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF, a protein that helps grow blood vessels behind the retina that then obscure vision in AMD patients. The company hopes to get the drug to the point where it has to be injected into a person’s eye only twice a year.

Valitor’s first-in-human clinical trial is planned to start in 2024.

The company’s work will be aided by its $28 million Series B round, led by Morningside. Other investors include First Spark Ventures and ExSight Ventures as well as existing investors Berkeley Catalyst Fund and Pandect Bioventures.

Now that it has created the antibody drug, Valitor can dream a little about how its MVP platform can be used to build other drugs or with potential partners’ drugs, Jackson said.

“We’ve done the heavy lift,” he said, “and now we’re following down the pathway with a new value proposition.”