New kid on the block : Shantani raises seed funding

Pune-based Shantani Proteome Analytics,  a two year-old drug research and development (R&D) company, has raised seed funding (less than $1mn) from Bangalore’s India Innovation Fund.  Shantani is founded by Chaitanya Saxena (pictured), a former research scientist at Indianopolis-based Big Pharma company Eli Lilly.  Funding details haven’t been disclosed.

Shantani is focused on one specific aspect of drug research  i.e. figuring out which “biological targets” in the body (such as proteins that are implicated in a disease) are acted upon by specific drugs. This can help companies understand why a drug works well or doesn’t work well enough. This understanding can have two potential applications – finetuning experimental drugs to make them safer and more effective or finding new uses for known drugs, also known as “repurposing.”

Shantani is working on a proprietary technology that can do this efficiently for large pharmaceutical companies, said Saxena in an interview. “Our vision is to develop collaborations with pharmaceutical companies to provide this technology as a service,” he said.  The end-game, though, is “to utilise this technology to do our own proprietary research.”

Last year, Shantani got equity investment from the Indian government’s Technology Development Board through its Entrepreneurship Development Centre.  It operates out of a start-up incubation facility of  the government-owned National Chemical Laboratory.

Tough terrain

R&D service-providers in India have been having a rough time after the 2008 global economic crisis.  Typically these undertake contract research by either making drug compounds to order for innovators or pursuing pre-determined R&D activities for a fee. Competition from other emerging economies and cost pressures experienced by Big Pharma customers have put their rates under pressure. The industry is struggling to shed its “low-cost” image and to be counted as an equal partner by innovator companies. See here.

Shantani “does not want to be a contract research company,” said Rajesh Rai, chief executive officer of the India Innovation Fund.  “It is betting on its own intellectual property,” he said. “The partnership with large pharma companies would be to refine and validate the proprietary platform it has developed,” he said.  In parallel, Shantani would be using this platform technology to come up with new drugs or repurpose known drugs, he said.

Drug discovery too has seen a chequered history in India with no new drugs from any Indian company on market in spite of nearly two decades of private investment in new drug R&D. Earlier this year, in what many saw as a blow for the sector, the Tata group announced plans to review its investment in its drug R&D firm Advinus. See back story here.

Bridging gaps

The global drug industry has yet to hit upon a foolproof approach to drug discovery.  In the early years, scientists often shot in the dark  investing in drugs that seemed to display desired outcomes or effects (known in jargon as “phenotypes”) without quite understanding why.  This approach actually delivered some breakthrough medicines such as metformin – still considered a gold standard of type 2 diabetes treatment.  But this approach required substantial trial-and-error and was expensive.

Then, with advances in human biology it became possible to identify specific “targets” in the body responsible for disease and to design drugs to work on those targets.  This created huge expectations that drugs could be designed to hit specific targets and avoid others to increase certainty of research, and reduce side-effects.  This so-called rational drug design resulted, for instance, in blood cancer drug Glivec.

However, recent research suggests that the traditional “phenotype-based” approach still contributes to the most breakthroughs. See here. For one, says Saxena, target-based drug discovery spawned me-toos since it was easier to go after a so-called “validated” or proven target. And two, “there are multiple proteins involved in a disease,” said Saxena.  If they weren’t all addressed, side-effects cropped up forcing companies to kill drugs in development pushing up costs.

Companies such as Shantani position their technology to ideally allow scientists to go back to phenotype-based research but with more information on how the drug works.  “We help to marry the two approaches that we know have worked and have different success rates,” said Saxena. “You bring your lead molecule or hit molecule thorugh phenotypic screening to us, understand how it works and then rationalise or optimise that to develop a better drug.”

Shantani is by no means the first company to play in this area. Germany’s Cellzome and Kinaxo Technologies were lately acquired by UK’s GlaxoSmithKline and Germany’s Evotec respectively for precisely these skills. “We are trying to differentiate ourselves by how much better our technology is to what’s on the market,” says Saxena. Shantani claims a 50 to 70 per cent saving in time and cost over what its potential customers currently use.

Rai said the company was well-funded for about 18 months and will need to rope in more investors beyond that. In the meantime, the Fund is willing to pony up more capital, if needed, he said.

Pic sourced from


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