BioWorld International Correspondent

Evolva SA raised €12 million in a Series A round to further develop its Watchmaker platform, which employs yeast artificial chromosomes and flow cytometry for the synthesis and selection of novel compounds.

Aravis Venture Associates AG, of Zurich, Switzerland, led the round. Other new investors included Novartis Venture Fund, Yamanouchi Venture Capital and Dansk Innovationsinvestering, while seed investors Symbion Capital and Vaekstfonden also participated.

The company, established in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2001, also relocated its headquarters to Allschwil in Switzerland, although it will continue to operate from Copenhagen.

"Essentially we want to be in a cluster where we have big pharma - obviously Novartis and Roche and Aventis - a little way down the Rhine, so we have access to potential partners," said CEO Neil Goldsmith. Moreover, Switzerland is, he said, "arguably" Europe's second most successful biotech cluster after the UK, and it has gained that position with a smaller outlay.

Evolva's technology is designed to produce small molecules with defined functional properties and specificities. It has devised methods for isolating genes of interest from very small amounts of biological tissue.

"We're pulling out populations of genes that are expressed in tissues that are, for whatever reason, involved in doing interesting chemistry," Goldsmith said. Those are packaged into artificial chromosomes, several of which are inserted into individual yeast strains. The latter then are exposed to selective pressures in order to yield strains that produce a compound with the desired activity.

The company assembles both natural and novel biochemical pathways in that manner. It can combine in a single yeast strain genes from completely different backgrounds, such as insects, plants and corals, as well as synthetic genes.

"It's chemistry by combinatorial genetics, if you like," Goldsmith said.

Evolva has an alliance with DakoCytomation A/S, of Glostrup, Denmark, which gives it access to flow cytometry technology for high-throughput screening based on multiple parameters. "We can go through a billion screening events in three or four hours," Goldsmith said.

The company has raised €14 million since its inception, and now is funded for the next three years, Goldsmith said. At present, its strategy is based on supplying preclinical drug candidates to third parties. It has collaborations with two Danish biotechnology companies: TopoTarget A/S, of Copenhagen, in the area of topoisomerase inhibitors, and with Bioligands ApS, of Odense, in the field of nuclear receptor modulation.

Goldsmith said the company would not decide until its next funding round whether to establish its own drug discovery activity. For the present, its main focus is on optimizing and extending the Watchmaker platform.

"I know it's an overused word, but it truly is a new paradigm in how you get drugs," he said. "There's an awful lot to learn about how best to apply it."

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