Those following the fortunes of the Seattle-based Sana Biotechnology cellular engineering startup had predicted a success path similar to another company two of its founders hailed from.
The Juno Therapeutics roots of Sana co-founders Steve Harr and Hans Bishop have been oft-cited in explaining investor excitement surrounding their newest 2-year-old venture, which SEC documents show recently landed a whopping $821 million in an initial funding round. That amount is one of the largest in recent memory for a local biotech startup, raising comparisons to the $264 million garnered by the Juno cellular research company early in its existence in 2014, before it sold for $9 billion to Celgene in March 2018.
Sana CEO Harr won’t make financial comparisons to Juno — which spun off of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center — but says lessons learned from that success have been applied to the new company, which focuses on using engineered cells as medicines.
“I think what we’re trying to do is go straight into the most challenging problems,” said Harr. “And if we solve them, then we’ll have really scalable, long-term impactful therapies for the patients.”
Identifying those challenges isn’t always easy in a complex field with a number of component parts. The company’s quest to repair “sick” cells within the body or replace them with healthy versions takes trial, error and patience, especially when it comes to devising treatments that patients can afford.
The company dodged a bullet by securing most of its funding a year ago, well before the coronavirus pandemic struck and made venture capital more challenging for startups to acquire. It waited until that pledged money had been collected before announcing “more than $700 million” had been secured from investors including ARCH Venture Partners, Flagship Pioneering, the Alaska Permanent Fund, the Public Sector Pension Investment Board, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Bezos Expeditions, Baillie Gifford, Altitude Life Science Investors, F-Prime Capital, GV and Omega Funds.
One thing Harr insists Sana won’t do is spend all of its new money on research designed mainly to attract more investment.
“One of my concerns and frustrations with the industry is it feels like sometimes companies run experiments to justify raising more capital,” he said. “We want to run experiments to find truth. And then have both the people and the balance sheet to deal with whatever that truth is.”
Harr was quick to mention that despite he and Bishop having Juno backgrounds — he was chief financial officer and Bishop its CEO — only about 10% of Sana’s 230 employees in Seattle, San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts, came over from that company.
He said he quickly realized Sana needed a Seattle headquarters to be closer to top talent and a strong entrepreneurial environment surrounding gene therapies and cellular engineering. So, he relocated here with his family from New York.
“I think the most important thing in building a company and the thing that we want inside Sana is finding a mission that, if you happen to get it, will change outcomes for a broad part of society,” Harr said. “And then, create an environment where people feel connected to that mission and can thrive. And if we can do that … I think we’ll build a really valuable company.
“At the end of the day, it really does come down to the quality of people that work here. And we have to make sure they can be their best selves.”