When Virvio participated in BioPharm America™’s Startup Day pitch contest in 2016, the company had been operational less than one year. It had three employees and was operating under grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government funding mechanisms to advance its preclinical influenza assets from its offices in the University of Washington incubator. It was the second runner up.
Since then, Virvio has opened its first round of equity funding and substantially advanced its scientific platform. It still has three employees working from the University of Washington and Christopher Pirie, PhD, CEO, has continued to participate in startup competitions.
Creating visibility for Virvio is the reason behind Dr. Pirie’s appearance at a variety of business contests and speaking engagements (including the BIO Start-Up Stadium). Each is targeted to a specific audience. His participation in BioPharm America’s Startup Day pitch contest was designed specifically to raise visibility within the investor community. Participation in BIO Startup Stadium venue is designed to boost visibility within the biopharma community.
While finishing high in the pack is good, the real benefit is in acquainting potential investors and partners with the company long before their active involvement is sought. The return on investment, measured in new investors and collaborative partners, is the result of cumulative efforts.
For example, when presenting at BioPharm America, Virvio was seeking early stage investment. “The audience at BioPharm America, however, was composed of more mature investors. Those investors weren’t involved in our current equity offering. Instead, they were interested in funding Series A and B rounds, so we weren’t expecting to receive investments,” Dr. Pirie says.
Engagement with that group may come later. Presenting now, as an early-stage company, helps lay the groundwork for later interactions. “This is about exposure,” Pirie says. “By presenting now, when we do engage with late stage investors we will have demonstrated momentum and established a track record of drawing a path forward and then executing on it. That inspires a lot of confidence.”
Mini-binder protein scaffolds
Virvio is a preclinical bio therapeutic company that designs synthetic protein scaffolds called mini-binders. Their affinity and specificity are comparable to antibodies, but they have the stability and easy of manufacturing associated with small molecule drugs.
As Pirie elaborates, “In terms of sequence, they resemble nothing nature has seen. In terms of structure, they resemble well-folded proteins. They are stable up to boiling temperature and can be chemically synthesized.” As a result, they are easy to manufacture and store.
Because the entire protein is computationally designed, every amino acid position can be planned. As a result, he says, “We can prescribe the folding characteristics that are most advantageous for the molecular target and disease.”
Since Pirie’s presentation at BioPharm America, “We’ve made fantastic technical progress. The lead product is computationally designed to target conserved sites on the influenza virus for pre- and post-exposure efficacy. It leverages the same mechanism of action used by clinically validated antibodies—targeting a neutralizing epitope—on the hemagglutinin stem region of influenza to inhibit its fusion activity,” he says. Because that stem region is consistent across multiple strains, this intervention holds the promise of enabling one drug to target virtually all strains of influenza.
Preclinical work in small rodents reveals another benefit. The vaccine can be delivered by inhalation, unlike antibodies, which must be infused or injected (typically during hospital stays). This expands the patient population for the drug. And, he adds, “Because it is shelf-stable, it can be stockpiled against pandemics or administered in the developing world, where refrigeration is unavailable or unreliable.
“We’re using this work to demonstrate the general properties of our high throughput discovery platform for mini-protein designed therapeutics,” Pirie says.
High performance algorithms
Virvio’s technology is based on the use of multiple high-performance algorithms to target epitopes that would be inaccessible to traditional antibodies. This high-throughput computational workflow generates tens of thousands of unique synthetic binding proteins and then screens them to find the ones best suited for a specific target. To further refine the process, the big data gathered during this screening process is fed back into the algorithm. This creates an iterative machine learning process that, with each round of design, generates increasingly better lead compounds.
“As a platform discovery company, our real value is at the discovery stage. Although we’ll have to conduct some in-house demonstrations, our goal is to become a service provider for this modality across indications,” Pirie says. “We want to partner early and often.”
Virvio is focused on two areas. The first is antibody repurposing. This area evaluates clinically-validated targets that need alternative routes of administration or greater stabilization. Examples include gastrointestinal and dermatological diseases. The second area of interest develops antibodies for targets that are difficult to address (like ion channels or G protein-coupled receptors) when using traditional antibodies or small molecules. Applying the mini-binder scaffolding technology to these areas is expected to improve administration, dosing and patient protection.
The company plans to continue to advance its influenza asset using support from the NIH and BARDA as well as other government funding, and from the equity funding currently being raised. “Eventually,” Pirie says, “we plan to launch a Series A round to continue building the platform by strengthening the algorithms, enhancing high throughput selection and expanding into new indications.”