Biotech co-founded by UCC graduates raises $5m funding

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US-based biotech company Axonis was co-founded by UCC graduates Joanna Stanicka and Shane Hegarty.

Axonis Therapeutics, a biotechnology start-up co-founded by two University College Cork (UCC) graduates, has raised $5m in funding to develop therapies for neurological disorders.

Shane Hegarty and Joanna Stanicka were part of a team that launched Axonis in 2020 after securing $4m in seed funding from a group of angel investors. The start-up is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The latest round of funding was led by VC firm Alexandria Venture Investments, with R3 Bio, BoxOne Ventures and Civilization Ventures.

Spinal cord injury non-profits Spinal Research and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation also participated in the investment round.

Axonis is focused on developing neuron-reviving therapeutics for spinal cord injuries, epilepsy and other neurological conditions. The fresh injection of capital will support the start-up’s next phase of development as it brings its biotech research into the clinic.

‘Growing global problem’

“We are delighted to have successfully delivered compelling proof-of-concept non-clinical data on our neuromodulating therapy in our first year,” said Stanicka, who is CEO of Axonis.

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“With our additional financing, we are planning to nominate a lead development candidate and file for an IND [investigational new drug] next year.”

Hegarty, who has been appointed as the company’s chief scientific officer, added that neurological disorders are extremely complex and remain a “growing and global” problem.

“At Axonis, we are advancing cutting-edge therapies, identified from unbiased screens in animal models, that can enable neurons to overcome fundamental pathologies that are shared between [central nervous system] disorders. We are devoted to translating these exciting discoveries to help patients.”

Jeff Stevens, VP of science and technology at Alexandria Venture Investments, will now join the Axonis board while Brock Reeve, director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, will serve as R3’s board observer.

“We are excited to welcome Dr Stanicka and Axonis to our growing portfolio of innovative, data-driven life sciences start-ups,” said Stevens. “Her understanding of science and her business acumen, as well as the societal importance of neuroprotective targets Axonis is addressing, make this a compelling investment.”

Born in Poland, Stanicka moved to Ireland when she was 19 and got a PhD in cancer research from UCC. She later joined Dr Zhigang He’s laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School. In 2019, she accepted an offer from fellow Axonis founder Corey Goodman to lead the new start-up, which spun out of He’s research.

Hegarty, who is originally from Cork, is another UCC alumnus who completed a PhD in neuroscience. In 2017, he became a research fellow in He’s lab, working alongside Stanicka.