GV backs another spinout by MIT’s serial entrepreneur Feng Zhang as epigenetics becomes an emerging area of healthcare.

a rendering of the DNA double helix

Just over a decade after the discovery of CRISPR, Feng Zhang, one of the original researchers of the gene editing technology, has added another startup to an already formidable stable of businesses based on his research.

Moonwalk Biosciences, which is focused on using CRISPR to edit the epigenetic code of cells, launched with $57m in seed and series A financing from investors including GV, a corporate venture capital unit for US-based technology conglomerate Alphabet.

Zhang, a professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and of Biological Engineering, and a core member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, has already founded several companies. Editas Medicine and Beam Therapeutics are trading on the stock exchange with a combined market cap of just over $3bn. Sherlock Biosciences and Arbor Biotechnologies, both series B-stage, have raised $111m and more than $300m to date, respectively. Aera Therapeutics launched with $193m in 2023, though last week laid off a quarter of staff to extend its runway as venture capital becomes harder to raise.

Alphabet has been an investor in a number of these businesses, including Beam, Editas and Aera, and has built a fruitful relationship with Zhang over the years. Arch Venture Partners (another returning investor for Zhang), Alpha Wave Ventures, Future Ventures, Khosla Ventures and YK Bioventures also provided capital to Moonwalk.

Epigenetic editing: an emerging biotech area

The launch of Moonwalk is another signal that epigenetics is an emerging area in biotech. The typical use of CRISPR is in editing DNA but that’s risky due to unpredictable repair processes and changes to the DNA sequence. Moonwalk, however, is targeting the epigenetic code, or the modifications in the expression of genes that happen without a change in the DNA itself. The company likens it to “the software of the genome”, which can be used to reprogram cells to their healthy state.

Moonwalk is not the first company to look at editing the epigenome, nor is it GV’s first foray into the area, though the list remains relatively short.

Among Moonwalk’s peers is Chroma Medicine — also based on MIT research, though not founded by Zhang — which has raised $260m to date, including a $135m series B round backed by GV in March last year.

Another, Tune Therapeutics, launched with a $40m series A round in 2021 but is noteworthy for something else. The company was co-founded by UC Berkeley’s Fyodor Urnov, a collaborator of Jennifer Doudna, who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (together with Emmanuelle Charpentier) for her work on CRISPR, and fits into the other strand of spinouts based on CRISPR.

Epic Bio, too, traces its roots back to work led by Doudna: it was founded by Stanford University’s Stanley Qi who worked on his PhD under Doudna. The company launched with a $55m series A round in 2022.

CRISPR: a tale of two halves

Feng Zhang (image courtesy of Moonwalk Biosciences)

The world of CRISPR spinouts wasn’t always divided. Doudna and Zhang initially worked together on Editas Medicine until Doudna left the company. A drawn-out patent battle ensued between the University of California and the Broad Institute over which institution owned the rights to CRISPR. Doudna, in 2017, told Science.org that she had, however, liked the concept of everyone collaborating and said: “I wish that it had worked out differently.”

Moonwalk claims to be the first company that combines an epigenetic discovery platform with precise engineering. It uses artificial intelligence tools to examine changes during methylation — a chemical modification of DNA that turns genes on or off and thereby regulates the production of proteins — and it then uses that information to decide which parts of the epigenome to target and edit using technology from Zhang’s lab.

Alex Aravanis, Moonwalk’s chief executive and co-founder, explains: “Epigenetics is the software of the genome. While changes to the genome are irreversible, edits to the epigenome can be reprogrammed in different ways. Epigenetic changes determine whether genes are turned on or off, and can potentially reverse disease, broadening the therapeutic landscape to find potential cures previously thought impossible.

“Epigenome engineering is the next frontier of genetic medicines, and we believe the most effective strategies require a deep understanding of the epigenetic landscape of cellular states. This emerging new field can create safer and more effective treatments for a broad range of diseases without damaging or changing the underlying DNA sequence.”

Moonwalk’s other co-founders include president and chief technology officer Arash Jamshidi and chief operating officer Justin Valley. Zhang and Aravanis, a former executive at biotech companies Illumina and Grail, first met as students at Stanford University and reconnected to launch Moonwalk. Together, they now hope to tackle a range of diseases with unmet needs.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).