Muna Therapeutics debuted with the Danish biotech sector’s biggest-ever Series A round earlier this month. This showcases the rapid growth taking place in the biotech industry in the Nordic region.
Muna Therapeutics’ €62M ($73M) investment was co-led by the Danish investor Novo Holdings through its early-stage arm Novo Seeds. The startup was first set up by Novo last year and merged with the Belgian neurodegenerative disease firm K5 Therapeutics, leading to the launch of Muna’s newest incarnation.
Muna — whose name means ‘to remember’ in Old Norse — has a big focus on treating Alzheimer’s disease. The frequently-debated amyloid hypothesis attributes this complex condition to the buildup of a protein called amyloid-beta in the brain. However, some people with a buildup of amyloid-beta in their brains develop symptoms quickly, while others do not.
According to Muna CEO Rita Balice-Gordon, the firm is investigating the reason for this discrepancy as it could be key to understanding both how the disease progresses and possible mechanisms of resisting the disease.
To that purpose, the firm utilizes two separate platforms. One is a discovery platform that studies the expression of different genes in people with and without Alzheimer’s symptoms and seeks to identify therapeutic targets; the other one is a drug discovery engine powered by artificial intelligence. “Once targets are in the portfolio, we then apply our collective drug discovery expertise in the medicinal chemistry platform,” Balice-Gordon said.
The company plans to have selected two targets by next year, and to move one of its three programs towards clinical trials by the end of 2023. Over the coming years, the Muna team will also investigate treatments for Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and frontotemporal dementia.
Research in Alzheimer’s disease and in other neurodegenerative diseases has picked up in recent months, after a tough streak of more than a decade that saw a number of spectacular late-stage failures of clinical trials.
Most recently in the US, Biogen received a controversial nod for its amyloid-targeting treatment Aduhelm, resulting in the first FDA-approved Alzheimer’s therapy in about two decades. Another source of hope in the past year came from the French biotech AB Science, which reported positive results in a late-stage trial focusing on neuroinflammation.
Muna’s major Series A is in the top five biggest Danish biotech venture rounds closed since 2018. Alongside Novo, it included a mix of European venture capital firms such as Sofinnova Partners and LSP Dementia Fund, in addition to Polaris Partners in the US. This follows a recent trend of companies from the Nordic region reaping oversized venture rounds fuelled by growing foreign investment.
Huge biotech venture rounds closed in Denmark this year alone include a Series B by IO Biotech, which raised €127M to advance cancer immunotherapies in January, and Cytoki Pharma’s €38M ($45M) Series A in May to combat inflammatory bowel disease. In April, the startup ADCendo capitalized on growing hype around antibody-drug conjugates in cancer to bag Denmark’s then biggest biotech Series A round at €51M.
According to Stephan Christgau, co-founder and Managing Partner of Nordic VC firm Eir Ventures, the Nordic biotech scene traditionally has had few VC firms so companies have often gone straight to public markets. However, this is changing in recent years as VC investors from both Europe and the USA have been flocking to the region. Company creation has also sped up and incubators such as the Copenhagen-based BioInnovation Institute have played a pivotal role in the boom.
“Muna Therapeutics is one company in a growing list of innovative Nordic life science companies that are able to attract international venture capital in large well-syndicated rounds,” said Christgau.
“Other large rounds are in progress or remain to be announced, including one that we completed last month. Common to most of these financings is a strong presence of leading US and European venture funds, working alongside one or more of the, relatively few, local Nordic life science venture funds.”
Article updated on 21 July 2021 to clarify that ADCendo’s Series A was Denmark’s biggest biotech Series A round at the time of closing.
Cover image from Elena Resko. Table via Jon Smith.