Just days before KBC Securities’ "State of the Union" announcement on how well Belgian biotech has been faring this year, Confo Therapeutics closed a terrific series A financing round. The company raised 30 million euros, which will be used to accelerate their drug discovery activities using their camelid-based ConfoBody™ technology.
Image from left to right: Toon Laeremans (Head of Technology); Cedric Ververken (CEO); Christel Menet (CSO); Frank Landolt (Chief Counsel IP & Legal)
Confo Therapeutics has been referred to as the “younger brother” of Ablynx, the golden child of Belgian Biotech that last year sold to Sanofi for 3.9 billion euros. There are several reasons for the comparison: Confo’s proprietary ConfoBodies™ are single domain antibodies derived from camelids, just like Ablynx’ Nanobodies®. Confo Therapeutics is shooting for the stars, with their trajectory is looking set to mimic the astronomically successful rise of Ablynx.
However, there are also key differences between the companies, especially in terms of how they are employing their technology. Where Ablynx use their Nanobodies® to generate protein-based therapeutics, Confo are using their ConfoBodies™ to identify small molecule compounds, a more classic target for drug discovery.
Their technology is a valuable drug discovery tool, as the ConfoBodies™ are able to stabilize G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) in specific conformations, allowing Confo Therapeutics to identify GPCR modulating compounds for further clinical trials. BioVox has covered Confo’s technology in-depth in a previous article, so today we spoke to CEO Cedric Ververken about the company’s activities over the past few years and what Confo plans to do with its new capital.
The main focus for us right now is to move into late stage discovery and towards development of candidate molecules that we can push into the clinic. Because that is where the value of the company is going to be: it’s in the products that the platform is generating. - Cedric Ververken
A rising star
When last we spoke to Cedric Ververken, Confo Therapeutics had just celebrated their first birthday and were still a fledgling startup. Since then, they have established two impressive partnerships with major pharmaceutical companies and developed a pipeline of lead compounds. When asked about the company’s activities, Ververken shared with us:
“Obviously, a lot has changed in the past few years. In 2016 we were less than ten people, based in Brussels on the campus at VUB (Vrije Universiteit Brussel). Today we are a completely different organization: we are more than thirty people and have opened a second site on the Technology Park in Ghent.
We’ve also made significant advances to the Confo technology, which I think is one of the main reasons why we were so successful with the financing. We are now working on three different targets for our proprietary drug discovery pipeline. The most advanced project we have is in fibrosis, with the other two targets being in orphan diseases (one neurological and one metabolic).
The advantage of having raised 30 million is that we can push forward a number of programs in parallel, to get to pre-clinical candidates as fast as possible. We don’t have to put one on hold in favor of another. - Cedric Ververken
In addition to developing our own pipeline, Confo Therapeutics also signed two pharma deals in 2017. Ververken explained how the deals came about:
“We have an ongoing collaboration with Lundbeck on two neuroscience targets and a second one with Roche also on GPCR involved in CNS disease. Both companies had a high commercial interest in the respective targets but were struggling to get the chemistry they wanted and saw our technology as a solution to crack those targets.”
The freedom to not choose
The successful 30 million series A round means that Confo Therapeutics now has the flexibility to pursue multiple activities simultaneously. Specifically, the company is looking to enhance its technology and expand its portfolio.
“The 30 million financing will allow us to take our lead programs into the clinic,” said Ververken. “The advantage of having raised 30 million is that we can push forward a number of programs in parallel, to get to pre-clinical candidates as fast as possible. We don’t have to put one on hold in favor of another.
We’re also in the process of selecting a second wave of targets, new projects that we are going to start later this year. However, the main focus for us right now is to move into late stage discovery and towards development of candidate molecules that we can push into the clinic. Because that is where the value of the company is going to be: it’s in the products that the platform is generating.”
Riding the wave of success
It is a competitive space, with big biotechs here in the area, but that’s also why this region is such a good one. - Cedric Ververken
Belgian biotech is booming, and it would seem that the success of a few flagship companies is paving the way for others to follow suit. We wanted to know how Ververken felt about the state of the Belgian ecosystem, and if he thought the renown of more mature Belgian companies has contributed to the success of Confo Therapeutics?
“I think that’s definitely part of it,” Ververken said, referencing companies like Ablynx, Galapagos and Argenx. “People know of these companies internationally, which means international investors are coming here to look for “the next Argenx/Ablynx/Galapagos”. It is one of the reasons we were able to attract an investor like Perceptive Advisors for example, who usually only invest in public companies or as a crossover investor.
I think it is not only the reputation of older companies though, but also the other players in the local biotech ecosystem such as VIB (the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology). VIB not only groups top scientific labs in Flanders that produce excellent science, but is also really good at commercializing their science, either through licensing with industry or by setting up new companies like Confo Therapeutics.
Lastly, I think it’s also the availability of talent in the region and our ability to attract talent from abroad. In addition to funding, that’s a really important factor for growing companies like us. It is a competitive space, with big biotechs here in the area, but that’s also why this region is such a good one.”