Fattening the bankroll, Bill Haney adds cancer R&D powerhouse Merck to Skyhawk’s roster of partners out to drug RNA
John Carroll – Editor & Founder
Whatever Biogen learned about Skyhawk in the 6 months since it anted up $74 million to get a collaboration going with their R&D team on drugging RNA for neurodegeneration, it must have been a positive experience.
The big biotech has already come back to the bargaining table and signed up to expand the range of targets on their discovery list. And this morning Skyhawk is also announcing that pharma giant Merck has stepped up with its own initiative on neurodegeneration while adding cancer to the RNA menu of collaborative specialties at the upstart drug discovery unit for the first time.
Skyhawk chief Bill Haney wasn’t being explicit about the terms — Merck, in particular, is traditionally loathe to discuss the financial details involved in their discovery pacts — but factor in the $149 million in hard upfronts already announced with Biogen, Celgene and Takeda (also on neurodegeneration), and Haney tells me little Skyhawk has rounded up “quite a bit of money” with its deals in just 18 months. With the equity Haney has attracted or put in, the bankroll pushes well past the $200 million mark.
The milestones? They stretch up into the billions. Merck alone attached a $600 million deal total on every program they opted for.
Dean Li, the head of discovery at Merck Research Labs, says the pharma giant sees this deal as an opportunity to do something brand new in RNA splicing, with a plan to go after some currently undruggable goals. (And no, he didn’t say which ones.)
Haney, a documentary filmmaker and busy biotech entrepreneur, placed a heavy emphasis on growing the company with deal cash since he and the insiders at the company put up $8 million in seed money at the beginning of 2018. And while Skyhawk wasn’t the first of the group of startups to unveil plans to discover small molecules that could be used to drug RNA, they’ve come up with the most impressive roster of alliances in the field.
Haney also runs Dragonfly, which includes Tyler Jacks at MIT — a marquee scientist in the oncology world — as one of the co-founders. After serving as an unofficial adviser at Skyhawk for some time now, Jacks has now formally accepted the role of head of the scientific advisory board at the company, which has built up a staff of 40 in Cambridge with a full-time equivalency group of 120.
Skyhawk has been growing fast, but Haney says it’s also been running at a deliberate speed. The team purposefully held back on opening up talks on the oncology front until last January’s JP Morgan confab. Cancer is where the in-house program is focused, with 2 programs set to enter the clinic near-term. And now that they are diving deeper into cancer with some plans to explore virgin territory in R&D, he’s brought in Bristol-Myers vet Tai Wong as VP of oncology biology. Wong spent 19 years at Bristol running the oncology drug discovery unit. Then he jumped to Peloton, which was acquired by Merck for $2.2 billion.
It’s a small world.