Health

Sana CEO reveals details about stealthy gene therapy startup that has raised more than $700M

CEO shed more light on one of most secretive, heavily funded startups in Seattle and the global biotech industry — detailing its plans to create tools that replace and repair human body cells, with the potential to treat various diseases and create new medicines.

Harr spoke with biotechnology journalist Luke Timmerman, founder of , this week at the . Sana in one of the largest venture financing deals in the life sciences industry and one of the biggest rounds on record in Seattle.

Founded in 2019, the 250-person company has an ambitious goal of both repairing cells in the body (gene therapy) and also replacing damaged cells (cell therapy). It’s led by several former executives from Juno Therapeutics, another Seattle biotech company that went public in 2014 and .

Sana has kept a relatively low profile since launching. It is competing with much larger entities that have deeper pockets and more robust logistics capabilities. But Harr said a startup such as Sana has a key differentiator.

“We have one competitive advantage: we can make faster and better decisions,” he said. “We get there because we have better people, we have greater focus, and we have better communication.”

Read on for key takeaways from the conversation.

How Sana started: Harr and his former colleagues at Juno learned a lot about engineering cells and manipulating genes during their startup journey. Juno was among a handful of U.S. companies making cutting-edge cancer immunotherapy treatments.

But they also knew there was more opportunity in a nascent industry of gene and cell therapy.

“We wanted to build the transformative or winning company of this next era, of the next 20 years,” Harr said. “To do that, we had to break the model of what biotech is, which is typically taking an idea and figuring out where to apply it best.”

Sana instead is trying to build the platform that can engineer cells and fix them, much like building a computer.

“There are a whole host of component parts that go into it,” Harr said. “We have to aggregate the right technologies.”

Harr said too many biotech companies sell solutions in search of problems. He likened it to someone showing up with a tiny screwdriver and looking for a loose screw to fix. Harr sees Sana more as a toolbox that can help build the right medicine for the right patient.

Sana is targeting various disease areas, including cancer, diabetes, genetic disorders, and more. “They are relatively diverse, but there are some really fundamental underlying platform and strategy principles that drive each of those,” Harr said.

Sana’s secret sauce: One key focus for the company is reimagining the delivery system for these therapies — how to get DNA, RNA, proteins, etc. into a cell. “Ultimately at the core, what we’re trying to do is really improve delivery, and really figure out how to hide cells from the immune system,” Harr said.

Hiding re-engineered or replaced cells from one’s immune system is important to prevent the possibility of the body rejecting the new cells.

Harr also talked about delivering therapy via injection, with the body becoming the “bioreactor.” It’s similar to technology built by Moderna and others. “You deliver the tools to enable your body to make its own medicine,” Harr said.

Manufacturing: Sana is also aiming to innovate how gene and cell therapies are produced and distributed at scale. They are typically expensive — Timmerman said CAR T-cell immunotherapies for cancer ran in the $300,000-to-$400,000 range per patient. Figuring out manufacturing costs at scale and making it less than current alternative methods of care for patients will be key to the strength of Sana’s business. Harr added that “you have to do it in a way that’s constructive for the system.”

Headcount: Sana employs 250 people spread across offices in Seattle, the Bay Area, and Cambridge, Mass. Having three outposts helps the company attract the best talent, Harr said. One advantage to raising so much capital is being able to hire the best folks. Last month Sana top scientists Ed Rebar and Terry Fry to the executive team.

“If you really hire one of the true world leaders in something, it is pretty amazing how quickly teams form around them,” Harr noted.

Money matters: Having more than $700 million in the bank helps Sana in various other ways. Harr said a lot of biotech companies often run what amount to experiments to justify raising more capital. “We have the privilege of running experiments to find truth as fast as you want to,” he said. “And then we want to have the balance sheet, technologies, and people to be able to grapple with whatever the truth is.”

Timeline: Harr said the company is on track with its original strategy but does not plan on selling medicine in the next two years. It will progress with multiple medicines in parallel, not one at a time, Harr said.

Leadership advice: During the pandemic and remote work, Harr said he’s started to reach out to four-to-six people at Sana each week that he wouldn’t normally talk with. He holds half-hour meetings to chat about what they are working on, and what leadership could do to make their life or job better. “I found that to be just such an invigorating way to learn what’s going on,” he said.

[The full interview with Harr, and other GeekWire Summit sessions, are available on-demand exclusively to attendees of the virtual event.]

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