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Super-resolution microscopy startup Eikon raises $518M for 'drug-hunting biofactory'

11 Jan 2022

Venture investors and the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund among the backers of firm co-founded by Nobel laureate Eric Betzig.

Eikon Therapeutics, a company started up as recently as 2019 to pioneer drug discovery through live cell studies with super-resolution microscopy, has raised more than half a billion dollars in its latest funding round.

With backers including several high-profile venture capital investors, alongside the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and insurance companies, it means Eikon’s total funding has now reached $668 million.

The firm, headquartered in Silicon Valley, is aiming to use a combination of live cell imaging, high-performance computing, and robotics to measure the real-time movement of individual proteins in living cells to develop completely new drugs for treating “grievous” illness.

That approach is based around the work of co-founder Eric Betzig, who won a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 for the development of super-resolution microscopy - techniques able to image targets smaller than the classical diffraction limit imposed by the wavelength of light used to illuminate a sample.

“Biochemical regulation requires dynamic, short-lived interactions among intracellular constituents,” stated the company. “Yet much of the scientific community’s understanding of these biological systems is based on static snapshots, typically obtained using frozen or fixed material.

“Eikon aims to change this with proprietary, purpose-built platforms that permit precise characterization of protein interactions in living cells with exceptional spatial and temporal resolution.”

Live-cell imaging platform
Eikon’s CEO Roger Perlmutter, who was hired when the company raised its series A tranche last year, said in a statement announcing the $518 million series B round:

“Through the integration of advanced engineering and high-performance computing, alongside more traditional molecular biology and medicinal chemistry, Eikon is developing a battery of innovative tools for biological exploration.

”With the support of our investors, we continue to make dramatic progress in the industrialization of our live-cell imaging platform. We will use the resources of this new financing to progress more quickly toward our mission of inventing innovative medicines that will improve and extend life.”

In research work at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia campus, Betzig, who shared the 2014 Nobel with Stefan Hell and William Moerner, has pioneered the use of structured illumination microscopy.

A key advantage of the structured light approach is that a relatively low peak laser intensity is required, meaning that - unlike many other super-resolution techniques - it is compatible with live cell imaging using fluorescence.

Drug-hunting biofactory
The idea behind Eikon is to use fluorescence microscopy to deliver single-particle imaging and tracking (SPT) of individual proteins, with a spatial resolution of just 10 nm, at 10 ms intervals.

“The power of Eikon's platform is its scale,” states the firm. “We have engineered a fully automated system that can run thousands of SPT assays and process the resulting data each day, enabling high-throughput screening of SPT biology. Our automated systems reach beyond SPT and are applied broadly across the drug discovery process.”

The technique is able to image and quantify the dynamic movement of proteins inside living cells, revealing what Eikon describes as “novel druggable biology for difficult targets”.

“These mechanisms can be used across the drug discovery paradigm in high-throughput screens, as secondary assays, or to optimize compounds against a given target,” it explains.

“The broad utilization of protein dynamics, coupled with a full complement of drug discovery assay systems, will enable discovery of new therapeutics for previously undruggable targets.”

Betzig co-founded Eikon with Janelia colleague Luke Lavis, and Robert Tijan and Xavier Darzacq from UC Berkeley. As well as Perlmutter - a professor of immunology who was previously an executive at pharma giant Merck - Eikon’s board of directors includes former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

Adam Goulbourn from venture backer Lux Capital said: “By successfully integrating robotics, high-performance computing, and advanced data analytics, Eikon has built a drug-hunting biofactory of the future.

“The company’s proprietary single-particle tracking platform enables them to peer into live cells, in real-time, and derive biological insights never visualized before.”

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