Ottawa-based life sciences startup lands US$11.5M in fresh equity to fund cutting-edge cancer drugs

Mark Groper
Mark Groper is co-founder and chief executive of Ottawa-based Orion Biotechnology. Photo courtesy Orion Biotechnology

An Ottawa-based startup working on treatments that use the body’s immune system to target cancer, COVID-19 and other diseases has landed millions of dollars in financing to ratchet up its research efforts.

Orion Biotechnology’s new series-A round worth US$11.5 million is being led by Keiretsu Forum, a global syndicate of angel investors headquartered in San Francisco. 

The new funding will help the firm expand its clinical trials of drug candidates produced by its proprietary platform that targets G-protein coupled receptors, or GPCRs, which play a key role in diseases such as cancer, HIV and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) associated with the virus that causes COVID-19.

Kevin Sterling, the president of the Keiretsu Forum’s Toronto chapter, likens Orion’s treatment to a key that helps unlock the potential of the patient’s own immune system to neutralize the targeted disease. 

While most current immunotherapy treatments have proven effective in only a small number of patients, pre-clinical testing of Orion’s drug candidates suggest they could work on a broader scale and target cancer cells more efficiently than traditional drugs that employ small molecules and monoclonal antibodies, Sterling says.

"We have the goose that’s laying the golden egg, as it were."

Orion co-founder and chief executive Mark Groper says the company’s technology can potentially be tailored to treat a range of diseases, adding the firm is already in talks with a number of pharmaceutical manufacturers about licensing its solution.

“We have the goose that’s laying the golden egg, as it were,” says the veteran Ottawa life sciences executive. 

“If we fail on one particular drug candidate, that’s not our only shot on goal. This (funding) has really put us in a very good position to advance this program.”

Groper heads up an international who’s-who of medical and business luminaries in Orion’s executive ranks.

Founded in 2018, the company now has 17 employees in Ottawa, Switzerland, Poland and the U.S. While its administrative headquarters are here in the capital, its platform is the brainchild of Dr. Oliver Hartley, a researcher at the University of Geneva, who initially began developing it to target HIV. 

Hartley studied under Nobel Prize winner Gregory Winter, a molecular biologist known for his pioneering work in developing cancer-fighting monoclonal antibodies. Winter is now chair of Orion’s scientific advisory board. 

Groundbreaking HIV drugs

Meanwhile, the firm’s chief medical officer, Dr. Ian McGowan, is a renowned researcher who helped develop the groundbreaking HIV drugs amprenavir and abacavir while working at British pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) in the late 1990s. 

Other key executives include chief legal officer John Jussup, a former general counsel at the Bank of Canada who spent nearly two decades in the C-suites of Ottawa tech powerhouses such as Cognos and Halogen Software.

“We really tried to bring together a team that has not only the scientific skills but also the business and clinical expertise really needed for success,” Groper says.

Backed by $5 million in initial seed funding from the founders as well as friends and family – including a seven-figure investment from Groper himself – Orion has seen encouraging results from initial clinical trials using its technology to prevent AIDS as well as pre-clinical tests involving colorectal and gastric cancer.

Clinical trials in Canada and U.S.

Buoyed by that initial success, the company plans to launch phase one clinical trials on cancer patients in the U.S. and Canada.

Orion is also working with scientists at the National Research Council of Canada and Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory to test its therapy on COVID-19 patients who are suffering from ARDS. Meanwhile, it’s exploring additional partnerships with major pharmaceutical players on R&D efforts that will see its platform used to target other diseases.

Although it’s still early days and life sciences startups often have to travel notoriously long paths to commercialize their products, Groper is confident he has the team – and the technology – to make a significant contribution to the treatment of cancer and other killer diseases.

“My hope is that Orion will become this company that is producing high volumes of these new biologics that we turn over to large pharma, and we’ll see many new drugs coming out (that target) different indications a lot faster than we have in the past,” he says. “That’s what gets me super excited.”