DURHAM – Back in 2006, Katie Warner was a student sitting in professor Kevin Weeks’ freshman chemistry class at UNC Chapel Hill.

Little did she know that, years later, she and her former college professor, with whom she stayed in touch, would end up starting a biotech company together.

“I called him up when my husband and I wanted to move back to North Carolina,” recalled Warner, 31, who had been living in Cambridge, England, at the time, finishing up her PhD in Chemistry.

“I said, ‘Hey, I want to stay in the field. Is there anybody you know doing cool stuff?”

As it turned out, Weeks, 55, who coincidentally spent time overlapping with Warner while doing a sabbatical at Cambridge University, was getting ready to form a platform therapeutics company.

He asked her to join him. And so Ribometrix was born.

Fast forward to today: the four-year-old startup that focuses on the use of ribonucleic acid, a nucleic acid present in all cells known as RNA, to target disease, recently closed on a $30 million Series A round.

On Thursday night, the duo appeared on a panel as part of LaunchBio’s monthly Larger Than Life Science series to share their journey.

Durham life science startup Ribometrix wraps up $30M funding round

As it turns out, revolutionizing drug discovery is no small feat.

“I thought it was a great idea for years, but there’s a difference between, hey, I think you can make a drug this way and I think I can raise enough money to make a company and convince other people to do it with me,” Warner reflected. “I was in my late 20s. I was a grad student. I didn’t think of myself as that ambitious.”

Pitches and rejection

As they both recalled, those early days were filled with lots of pitches and rejection.

“We gave triple-digit numbers of pitches. You had to kiss a lot of frogs,” Weeks joked with the 80-strong crowd gathered at The Chesterfield in Durham.

Still, they prevailed.

Local venture capital firm, Hatteras Venture Partners were among the early investors. Along with SV Health Investors, they helped them secure the initial $7.5 million in seed funding.

Then Amsterdam-based M Ventures, the investment arm of drug giant Merck, jumped on board to lead the Series A round.

According to Weeks, the funds raised so far will go towards further developing its discovery technology and a number of small molecule drugs that control and modify RNA.

“There are many genes that everybody agrees if you affected how they were expressed, they would be amazing cancer therapies,” Weeks said.

“But no one has been able to do it because most drugs bind in cave-like structures, and if a protein doesn’t have one of those, no one is going to be able to drug it. We’re going to solve that problem. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Huntington’s Disease, cancer, fibrosis, multiple sclerosis – these are among the diseases, he said, that could be treated with this approach.

The race is on

For sure, Ribometrix is not the only company targeting RNA to identify novel therapies. Other companies include Arcus Biosciences and Expansion Therapeutics, among others.

However, competition is welcomed.

“The consensus is a rising tide floats all ships, right?” said Mike Dial, principal at Hatteras Venture Partners, who led the panel discussion.

“We’re pulling for their success also. There are so many target possibilities out there. Any proof of concept in any of those companies helps the field.”

As for future fundraising plans, everything is on the table.

“We’ve got a lot of progress to make with this round, no doubt. We’ve got a phenomenal team, and I think we’ll get there,” Dial said.

“Could this company get taken out before a next round is raised? It’s always possible. There’s lots of strategic interest in Ribometrix, but you’ve always got to be prudent and reserved for money for follow-up rounds, too. That’s probably the more likely path. We’ll raise another round. It could be a cross-over round and then you go public. None of us have crystal balls, right?”