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Mariana Oncology’s Radiopharm Platform Acquired By Novartis – LifeSciVC

Novartis recently announced the acquisition of Mariana Oncology, an emerging biotech focused on advancing a radioligand therapeutics platform, for up to $1.75 billion in upfronts and future milestones.

The capstone of its three short years of operations, this acquisition represents the second largest preclinical M&A deal in history, and the largest ever completed by Novartis.  It also represents a shift in radioligand therapy deal activity: a true platform acquisition, rather than one focused on a late-stage asset.

Mariana’s acquisition and the incredibly exciting radioligand therapy (RLT) space has been covered extensively elsewhere (here, here, here), but we thought sharing a few of the key people-related themes worthwhile.

This deal reinforces the oft-cited axiom in venture investing that finding and backing great teams is critical to success, and a big part of that is leveraging deep relationships across the ecosystem.

Let’s start with CEO-Founder Simon Read, who has now joined that rarefied air of serial entrepreneurs who’ve successfully had more than just a lucky billion dollar singleton; Simon was the CSO at Ra Pharma, which was acquired for $2.5B by UCB Pharma back in October 2019 (here). We had Simon on our “PeopleFlow” list immediately following that acquisition, and by the end of 2019 we were actively recruiting him. Fortunately for Atlas, he started as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) in the spring. In fact, Simon was one of our first “virtual EIRs” to start during the early days of the COVID lockdown. For the initial six months or so, Simon worked across multiple Atlas companies, including advising Vigil, Q32, Third Harmonic, and others.

In the fall of 2020, Simon began working closely with my partner Kevin Bitterman and Atlas’ Jernej Godec, who spent the prior year beginning to formulate a thesis around radiopharmaceuticals, an effort termed “Project Curie”.  A critical component of this thesis had become the belief that low molecular weight ligands, such as macrocyclic peptides like those Simon had helped discover and develop at Ra, would be a key enabler of radioligand pharmacology.  Simon was quick to recognize the potential opportunity in this space and began working to strengthen and refine the nascent strategy. To support the effort, we also brought on Sandy Mong from BridgeBio to work as an EIR with Simon on the project.  The final startup pitch to the partnership was in April 2021, and Project Curie was seeded on May 3, 2021 – propitious timing, as it was exactly 3 years to the day that Novartis closed its acquisition of the company.

Initially, we partnered with Dan Becker and Christine Borowski of Access Industries (with whom we’ve done several deals with) on fleshing out the plans for the seed investment, both of whom were exceptional partners in helping pull it all together.  In particular, Christine and Jernej were an invaluable duo for Simon to lean on, in part because they had previously worked together at Appletree. They were both instrumental in the founding of the company and its early plans, especially during the 18+ months that Curie/Mariana incubated in the Atlas offices from mid-2021 until February 2022.

In Atlas’ April 2021 seed investment memo, crafted with Simon and Access, the team spelled out much of the vision for what made Mariana a success: the critical platform enablement that would establish Mariana as a leader in this emerging field, as well as the compelling target opportunity with the initial lead program (now called MC-339) in small cell lung cancer. Great initial target selection is not only important for advancing a pipeline, but also for early platform development.

Shortly after our seed investment, we further strengthened the broader syndicate by combining forces with our friends at RA Capital, Josh Resnick and Laura Tadvalkar, who were working on a NewCo with a similar focus. Notably, CSO Alonso Ricardo, who was an EIR at RA Capital, had previously worked alongside Simon Read at Ra Pharma. And Josh was also previously a Venture Partner at Atlas, and is a good personal friend with many of us at Atlas as well. It was very much like bringing the band back together!

Bernard Lambert, CTO of Mariana, was also a key early hire, joining about a year into the journey from Telix Pharma, a targeted radiopharmaceutical player. Bernard literally has more years of radiopharm experience than probably anyone on the planet, having worked extensively in the field for 24 years, and was a key enabler for the technology. Like most new tech platforms, integrating deep domain experience – including scars and grey hair from prior learning cycles – is critical to success.

Mariana’s COO/CFO Linda Bain was the final member of the senior leadership team to join, and helped scale the company into its $175M Series B raise last fall, in preparation for a potential path to an IPO. Linda came to Mariana from Codiak Biosciences, where she was the CFO for seven years, and helped lead their 2020 IPO. Widely regarded as an exceptionally talented leader, we tried hard for several years to recruit Linda. Thanks to the concerted effort of the entire Atlas team, and in particular Andrea DiMella (our head of talent), we were able to help her land at Mariana.

One of the many recruitment activities that helped: Linda ran the Reach The Beach relay with us in Sept 2022 and was stuck in a van with me for 30+ hours. She may have said yes to joining an Atlas startup just to escape future time in the vans! Funnily enough, Simon also ran RTB with us, back in 2021. Running is the new golf, as we like to say. This highlights another axiom in the venture business: finding unique ways to build deeper community pays dividends over the long run.

As for all emerging biotechs, BD is an ever-present activity – talking to partners and keeping them up to date.  That said, the BD process that culminated with this acquisition really kicked off in earnest last fall as the story came together for the Series B, and we had line of sight for MC-339 entering the clinic. At our “Atlas Venture Retreat” in November 2023, interactions between Linda Bain and Shiva Malek, head of oncology research for Novartis, were key in setting up the BD dynamic in early 2024. The RLT space couldn’t have been hotter, with an incredible wave of M&A happening in parallel with Mariana’s discussions: RayzeBio acquired by BMS, Point by Lilly, and more recently Fusion by AstraZeneca.

While many parties were interested, Novartis stood out for its conviction around RLT (including its existing marketed portfolio of Lutathera and Pluvicto) and our confidence in their ability to carry forward the team and platform into the clinic. In late January, following a call we had with Novartis’ Ronny Gal and Susanne Kreutz about several ongoing dialogues in the portfolio, Novartis expressed their interest in moving forward with an acquisition to both Simon and Atlas. Our partners at Centerview helped finalize the deal – further strengthening their incredible market share in the >$1B deal category: they’ve done at least 55 M&A deals greater than $1B since 2019, more than the next nine advisors combined.

As we close this chapter of what we hope is a much longer Mariana Oncology story, we’d like to thank the entire CurieTx/Mariana team that helped guide this over the past 3-4 years – and all those in the broader ecosystem that helped with its success.

It’s always all about relationships and people – and, of course, the energy those interactions emit!