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Tether Therapeutics: Turning a DARPA Grant into Revolutionary Inhalable Medications

NobleReach Emerge & Tether Therapeutics

  • $5 million+ Raised in seed funding
  • $40 million+ Leveraged in funding from DARPA and philanthropies

The Challenge

Life-threatening respiratory infections including influenza, COVID-19 and RSV are incredibly difficult to treat, especially in regions without top-tier healthcare infrastructure. Dr. Phil Santangelo, a researcher at Georgia Tech, realized that if patients could inhale their meds rather than swallowing a pill or getting a shot, millions of people might benefit.

Santangelo set out to develop a way to get mRNA treatments, like the ones used in COVID-19 vaccines, into patient’s airways. Thanks to support from DARPA, his work led to a new class of polymer nanoparticles that can deliver mRNA into patients’ lungs with incredible accuracy.

Santangelo founded Tether Therapeutics to turn that research into commercial technology that pharmaceutical companies can use to treat infectious diseases.

To make that vision complete, he’d need a lot of support—and money. But venture capitalists typically view product development in ways that differ dramatically from academic scientists. And despite the recent COVID-19 pandemic, most investors think it’s too hard to make money with infectious disease treatments.

Enter the Embedded Entrepreneur

In its role supporting DARPA’s Embedded Entrepreneurship Initiative, NobleReach recruited Michael Chang, a former investment banker and venture capitalist with experience working for the Gates Foundation. Given his deep knowledge of the biotech industry and previous connection to Dr. Santangelo’s, Chang was a great pick to guide Tether through the commercialization process as an embedded entrepreneur.

In addition to the necessary business development and market expertise, Chang possessed a clear understanding of the important role that embedded entrepreneurs play in bridging the gaps between the academic and venture capital communities.

“There’s always this kind of dance of evaluating the data that’s been generated to date,” Chang said, “and determining how to best package that data to sell it to investors, while also trying to push the scientists to generate additional data that they might not have thought to.” In Tether’s case, platform-level data—which showed how Tether’s technology could be used for a number of different applications and treatment scenarios—piqued investor interest.

Chang also played a fundamental role in developing Tether’s commercial rationale, interviewing physicians for feedback about the company’s product and doing extensive market research. He guided the company through months of feedback, facilitating conversations with a diverse set of investors to understand each group’s priorities. Ultimately, Chang and Dr. Santangelo developed a use case that resonated with investors, and Tether went on to raise $5 million in seed funding.

“DARPA had put almost $40 million into the lab to develop this technology,” Chang said. “I was really happy that, at the end of the day, we were able to turn all those years of support… into an enterprise that’s going to move forward—it was a huge win.”

Michael is now CEO of Tether Therapeutics, which continues to research and develop new applications for its gene therapy technology, with the intention of bringing products to the general U.S. healthcare market.