Novartis Venture Fund Invests in Oculis as Novartis Execs Take Top Roles at Startup


LAUSANNE, Switzerland—Oculis, a clinical-stage biotechnology company focused on developing topical treatments for back-of-the-eye diseases, closed a Series B financing round of $20.3 million that included participation by Novartis Venture Fund, according to a recent Oculis announcement. In addition, three former or current Novartis/ Alcon executives are joining the startup company in top management roles, including Riad Sherif, a former Alcon area president for Europe, Middle East and Africa. Sherif, who also had held senior-level positions at Novartis, has been appointed as chief executive officer of Oculis, according to the announcement. Alcon is a division of Novartis.

Dr. Sabri Markabi, previously a senior vice president, head of R&D and chief medical officer at Alcon, has been named chief scientific officer at Oculis. Florent Gros, an executive with Novartis Venture Fund (NVF), will join the Oculis board of directors as chairman. NVF manages more than $800 million in committed capital and more than 40 portfolio companies around the world.

In conjunction with the financing, Oculis said it will relocate its corporate headquarters to Lausanne, Switzerland, while its R&D center remains in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Bay City Capital and Pivotal bioVenture Partners also were among the firms leading the syndicate of international life science investors in the $20 million funding round. Existing investors, including Brunnur Ventures and Silfurberg, also participated in the Series B round, according to the announcement.

Oculis’ lead program, OC-118, a proprietary topical product currently in a Phase IIb clinical trial for the treatment of Diabetic Macular Edema (DME), the leading cause of blindness in young adults in developed countries. In prior pilot studies, OC-118 demonstrated a statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvement of visual acuity and reduction of central macular thickness of DME patients, according to the announcement.

Novartis currently markets the injectable DME treatment Lucentis, which is indicated for the treatment of DME among other conditions, and Eylea, a treatment for certain retina diseases.

The new funds will be used to “advance the clinical development of … OC-118,” the announcement noted. Oculis has developed OC-118 using its novel Solubilizing Nanoparticle (SNP) technology platform, which improves both the ability to formulate drugs as eye drops and their bioavailability in the eye tissues, including anterior and posterior segments, the company noted.

Sherif said he is pleased to join the team that is working to develop “what could be the next generation of ophthalmic treatments.” He added, “Oculis founders have meticulously developed the novel SNP technology that improves both the ability to formulate drugs as eye drops and their bioavailability in eye tissues including the posterior segment. This technology opens a new era of breakthrough ophthalmic therapies that could provide important benefits to patients. Our goal with the lead program OC-118 is truly to transform the way DME is treated and managed today.”