A founder of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard has left for a new project. The chemical biologist Stuart Schreiber is heading up a new research institution he founded with a handful of biotech venture capitalists to make the process of starting companies “more seamless,” as he puts it.
Called Arena BioWorks, the new organization has been in the works for several years. For Schreiber, the seeds were planted in early 2020. He and Thomas Cahill, cofounder and managing director of the investment firm Newpath Partners, had formed a 12-person group called Scientists to Stop COVID-19.
As they advanced ideas about pandemic preparedness, Schreiber says, outside policymakers and public health experts were continually baffled by a main tenet of the biotech industry: that basic research was typically funded by the government, and the translation of science into drugs was typically funded by venture capital.
“My recollection is that some of those individuals—rather remarkable people who never allow barriers to get in their way—would say, ‘That can’t possibly be true. Do you understand how inefficient that is?’ ” Schreiber says.
When Schreiber moved on from the pandemic-era project, he took that lesson with him. He had in mind to set up an organization not unlike the Broad Institute, but with a key difference. It would be funded wholly by private financiers—from the research stage to company formation and potential commercialization.
Others quickly came on board. Stephen Pagliuca, a healthcare investor and co-owner of the Boston Celtics who’d previously backed the Pagliuca Life Lab at Harvard University, became “intimately involved” with the planning process, Schreiber says. Pagliuca helped orchestrate a meeting in December 2021 with Jim Breyer, founder and CEO of Breyer Capital and an early backer of Facebook, and Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Technologies. Both executives agreed to support the project within 25 min.
Soon after, Arena gained two more investors in Michael Chambers, cofounder of the life sciences manufacturer Aldevron, and Elisabeth DeLuca, widow of the Subway sandwich chain cofounder Fred DeLuca. Schreiber, Pagliuca, and Cahill became cofounders.
All told, the investors have committed more than $500 million to Arena. Schreiber says that’s enough to fund the institute for 10 years or more. Arena is designed to be self-perpetuating, though. If the companies it spins out are valuable, a portion of their value is put into an endowment to fuel future development.
By the fall of 2023, Arena was nearly ready to launch. Schreiber stepped away from the Broad Institute to focus on recruiting scientists. So far, Arena has lured J. Keith Joung, a pathologist with appointments at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, to be its lead translator. Schreiber plans to make other personnel announcements in the “near future,” but Joung is a strong start. His work underpins the gene-editing start-ups Beam Therapeutics, Editas Medicine, and Verve Therapeutics, among others.
Whatever companies Joung and other scientists decide to found within Arena, they’ll have access to the institute’s capabilities in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which span small molecules, protein therapeutics, genetic and cellular therapeutics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and functional genomics, Schreiber says.
“When a company is formed out of Arena, it doesn’t have to buy the new mass [spectrometry] equipment. If it wants to run genome-wide screens, it’s capable of doing that,” Schreiber says. “By pulling it under one roof, we may be able to be more efficient.”
Another advantage: scientists can tackle problems with long lead times. Traditional biotech companies often fall victim to the so-called “valley of death,” the chasm between promising science and having enough high-quality data to convince venture capitalists they’ll get a return on their investment. Arena seeks to avoid that trap.
Arena is technically disease-agnostic. That said, Schreiber sees four main areas of interest: brain health, immunology, oncology, and aging. Within those fields, he believes there’s potential to tackle psychiatric disorders, neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, COVID-19, drug-resistant and metastatic cancers, and organ failure.
“We’re not subject to changes in the biotech economic climate,” Schreiber says. “We hope that our structure will provide a more stable environment to do really hard drug discovery, to undertake indications that are the most daunting ones.”