Sanofi has linked up with a couple of venture capital firms to launch Warp Drive Bio, a firm which will use genomic technology to discover "drugs of natural origin".

Under the terms of the agreement, Sanofi, Third Rock Ventures and Greylock Partners will invest in Warp Drive at parity. Total programme funding over the first five years could amount to up to $125 million, including an equity investment of up to $75 million.

Sanofi will give Warp Drive access to its strains library and natural product expertise and will be granted certain access rights to the latter's technology and products. Warp Drive "remains an independent company and retains strategic direction", the partners noted, and the agreement enables the start-up to advance its projects to proof of concept in collaboration with Sanofi, "while also maintaining the ability to secure additional partnerships". However, Sanofi will acquire Warp Drive if certain milestones are achieved.

Warp Drive has been founded by "world-leading scientist" Gregory Verdine, professor of chemistry at Harvard University, George Church, a Harvard Medical School professor of genetics and James Wells from the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF). Incubated at Third Rock for two years, they claim to have assembled "an array of technologies to create a platform for identifying potential drug candidates using microbiology, nex-generation sequencing, cutting-edge bioinformatics and chemo-informatics".

Dr Verdine said that “revolutionary advances in microbial genomics have provided the blueprints for nature’s factories that assemble natural products, and have revealed vast treasure troves of novel natural product drugs hidden within microbes". Prior to Warp Drive, he argues that "no one had created a comprehensive discovery engine that selectively mines from nature those products with transformative pharmaceutical potential".

Sanofi R&D chief Elias Zerhouni, said the Paris-based group is "excited about this investment and collaborative partnership in a start-up biotechnology company based on outstanding science". He added that this "open and creative model of pharma-biotech partnership will boost innovation for the benefit of patients".

UCSF diabetes alliance

Meantime, Sanofi has also signed a $3.1 million collaboration with existing partner UCSF to identify drug targets that could lead to new therapies for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

The alliance is the university's third collaboration with Sanofi, alongside brain trauma and oncology programmes launched last year, since a master agreement was signed in January 2011.