Flagship-Backed Empress Therapeutics Launches to Accelerate Small Molecule Development

Pictured: A researcher working to develop new drug

Pictured: A researcher working to develop new drug

The startup launches with $50 million to improve its Chemilogics platform, which is designed to speed up the identification and development of small molecule drug candidates.

Pictured: A researcher working to develop new drugs/iStock

Life sciences–focused venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering unveiled its newest start-up Wednesday: the Cambridge, MA–based Empress Therapeutics, which aims to speed up the identification and development of small molecule drugs.

Empress will be backed by a modest $50 million initial investment from Flagship, which will help further improve the startup’s proprietary product platform Chemilogics. Empress will also use the capital to advance its starting pipeline of candidates.

“Small molecules are the most versatile class of medicines. Despite their advantages, however, finding small molecule compounds that are qualified to be drugs is unpredictable, time-consuming, and expensive,” Doug Cole, Empress Therapeutics’ co-founder and chairman of the board, said in a statement.

Empress’ potential solution for these challenges is its Chemilogics platform, which offers a “transformative proposition” for drug development, Noubar Afeyan, Flagship’s founder and CEO and co-founder of Empress, said in the statement. Cole is also a managing partner at Flagship.

The platform takes the technological advancements in biologic drug development and “applies them to small molecules, a class of medicines that, through their versatility, continues to offer tremendous value in improving human health,” Afeyan said.

Whereas biologics take advantage of how DNA is translated into different proteins, Empress’ platform looks at how the genetic code influences the cellular production of chemical compounds called metabolites.

Initially, the startup will focus its attention on metabolites generated by commensal bacteria. With a proprietary suite of genetic and computational tools, Empress will study these compounds and design small molecule drug candidates with potentially favorable therapeutic effects.

Chemilogics is also able to generate promising molecules at an “unprecedented speed,” according to Empress’ news release. In under two years, and with fewer than 30 team members, the platform has identified 15 drug leads across various target classes and for many potential indications, according to the company.

These molecules target a diverse range of proteins, including ion channels, enzymes, cytokines and GPCRs, suggesting that they could have potential use in different therapeutic areas such as oncology, neurology, inflammatory and immune disorders and metabolic diseases. Empress is aiming to file IND applications for several of these drug leads in the next 24 months.

Joining Cole and Afeyan on Empress’ masthead is Murray McKinnon, who will serve as the startup’s chief scientific officer and lead its research and development activities. McKinnon has more than 35 years of experience in drug discovery and early development and has helped advance 30 candidates across different therapeutic modalities, the company stated.

Jason Park, who was previously chief operations officer at Sonata Therapeutics, will lead Empress as its CEO and co-founder. Park is also operating partner at Flagship.

Tristan Manalac is an independent science writer based in metro Manila, Philippines. He can be reached at tristan@tristanmanalac.com or tristan.manalac@biospace.com.

Tristan is an independent science writer based in Metro Manila, with more than eight years of experience writing about medicine, biotech and science. He can be reached at tristan.manalac@biospace.com, tristan@tristanmanalac.com or on LinkedIn.