Billionaire-backed Arena BioWorks has aging in its sights

New $500m privately funded institute integrates discovery and company creation as it aims to swiftly translate insights into therapeutics.

Arena BioWorks, a newly launched biomedical research institute, has set its sights on accelerating the translation of basic biological research into new biotech therapeutics. While its focus is not exclusively on longevity, the institute says it aims to address a broad range of indications, with “aging” and “brain health” specifically mentioned.

Arena is backed by several billionaires, with Michael Dell, Jim Breyer, Michael Chambers and Elisabeth DeLuca revealed as founding investors. The New York Times has reported that the institute is bankrolled to the tune of $500 million.  

Co-founded by Harvard University scientist Stuart Schreiber, former Bain Capital Co-Chair Steve Pagliuca, and Tom Cahill of Newpath Partners, the institute operates under a unique, privately funded model that it hopes will attract top scientists to join its team. The institute claims its private funding model empowers scientists to investigate any disease without the constraints of grant funding or venture capital approval.

“Arena’s single source of funding frees our scientists from the typical short-term cycles of grant and venture capital funding,” said Schreiber. “Our aim is to accelerate progression from deep mechanistic human biology to biotech-enabled drug development.”

Located in the Kendall Square biotech hub in Cambridge, MA, Arena’s core scientific team includes CRISPR gene editing innovator Keith Joung and other yet-to-be-announced scientists.

“Arena’s approach to drug discovery, which hinges on strong basic science and relevant human biology, appeals to me as a physician-scientist,” said Joung. “With an experiment that directly probes human biology, we can immediately consider how to answer fundamental questions in the most physiologically relevant way, which also puts us that much closer to translating the answer into a drug.”

Inspired by the success of Bell Labs, Arena says it aims to create for-profit biotechnology companies alongside its core research mission. The institute will integrate discovery and company creation under one roof, relying solely on private funding to translate insights into discoveries, leveraging platform technologies including proteomics, protein and antibody engineering, and gene and epigenetic editing, among others.

“We are combining and building on the best practices from universities, institutes, and venture capital firms to create a new model that will speed the development of life-saving medicines for patients,” said Pagliuca.

Founding investor Chambers, known for transforming Aldevron from a 2-person company into a $9.6 billion biomanufacturing entity, sees the potential for innovations in biomanufacturing to accelerate the delivery of therapeutics.

“I am excited to build on what we’ve learned at Aldevron to bring therapies to patients faster by harnessing AI, machine learning, and robotics in next-generation biomanufacturing of therapeutics developed at Arena,” he said.

Arena says its operational funding will be derived from the success of biotech companies built on its discoveries, differentiating it from traditional research institutes. As emerging companies evolve and generate returns, a portion will flow back to Arena, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem.

Photograph: Tada Images/Shutterstock