The next penicillin? Fungi-based drug startup ‘Hexagon Bio’ raises $47 million

The discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming revolutionized the field of medicine. By accidentally growing a species of fungi named Penicillium, Fleming found that the fungi prevented the growth of bacteria in the petri dish. This revolutionary finding eventually led to the life-saving antibiotic penicillin. A biotech startup named Hexagon Bio raised $47 million to continue the legacy of Fleming.

Hexagon Bio announced September 15 that it raised a $47 million Series A round to continue to explore medicinal uses for fungi, Forbes reported. The new funding will allow Hexagon Bio to genetically sequence fungi and find new medication (not just antibiotics) based on fungi.

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“We really view [Hexagon] as the first of a new generation of computational driven big pharma companies,” says Alex Kolicich, and Hexagon Bio board member and a founding partner of venture firm 8VC. “From day one I thought they had a really strong ambition.” The Series A round was led by The Column Group, with Two Sigma Ventures and 8VC also participating.

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Hexagon Bio is based in Menlo Park and was started in 2017. The biotech startup started as a spinout from Stanford University, with one of the founding members and CEO Maureen Hillenmeyer being the former director of Stanford’s Genomes to Natural Products program.

Hexagon Bio wants to use its pool of talent and multidisciplinary approach to sequence the genomes of different fungi to detect if they have been altered to protect against diseases. If any alterations are present, Hexagon Bio will then study if they can be applied to treat diseases occurring in humans.

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Though this type of process was used by Japanese researcher Akira Endo in 1976 to discover that genes in the Penicillium citrinum could be used to lower human cholesterol, it took him multiple years to scan the genomes to find the compound. Hexagon Bio aims to use artificial intelligence to significantly speed up and automate the process.

“We’re going back to [nature] but applying AI and data science to it.”

Maureen Hillenmeyer

Hillenmeyer says the new funding from Series A will help Hexagon Bio build its genome database and hire people that can take newly discovered compounds through the clinical testing process. Hexagon Bio refuses to name any new compounds it has found, but Hillenmeyer says that the startup is focused on applications for cancer, infectious diseases, and drug-resistant fungi.

Though Hexagon Bio is focused on fungi at the moment, it may branch out into exploring other microbes like bacteria. “There’s an estimated 5 million fungal species on the planet, and only 5,000 have been studied so far,” Hillenmeyer says. “That’s going to keep us busy for a while.”

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