Angel investors might invest in one of every 100 opportunities that come before them—long odds for a startup, for sure. Ann Arbor-based RetroSense Therapeutics, a privately-held biopharmaceutical company, had already beat those odds, having raised $7 million in a 2014 angel-led Series A financing round that included Midland’s Blue Water Angels Investment Network. But the company, which develops gene therapies to restore vision to people whose blindness was caused by retinal degeneration, recently stood out as a national winner from among 60,000 other worthy startups when it was awarded the Angel Capital Association (ACA) Luis Villalobos Award. The award recognizes startup innovation and ingenuity from among the ACA community; Sarah Dickey, ACA Membership Director, thought RetroSense Therapeutics was a well-deserved winner. “Its innovations could make a huge difference in the lives of those blinded with retinal disorders,” she said. “Interestingly, the company is also a great example of collaboration among early stage investors as it benefited from cross-country syndication with multiple ACA member groups.”
RetroSense investor Blue Water Angels is one of nine angel groups in Michigan. According to the 2015 MVCA Research Report, there are 272 angel investors in Michigan, a 45% increase in statewide angel participation in the last five years. Angel investors support 214 Michigan startups, including RetroSense, in a wide variety of sectors, creating a rich pipeline of diverse opportunities for later-stage investment by Michigan venture firms. Ken Kousky, Executive Director of the BlueWater Angels Investment Network, called winning the Villalobos Award “a great honor and tribute to RetroSense’s progress. We congratulate RetroSense CEO Sean Ainsworth and the founders for their innovation and ingenuity, and wish them continued success as the company moves forward to the next stage of clinical development,” Kousky said.
RetroSense’s lead product RST-001 as a first-in-class gene therapy application of optogenetics (conferring light sensitivity to cells that were not previously, or natively light sensitive) designed to restore vision in patients suffering from blindness due to retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and advanced dry age-related macular degeneration. In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Orphan Drug designation for RST-001 for the treatment of RP. There are currently no FDA approved drugs to improve or restore vision in patients with these retinal degenerative conditions. The Company’s approach to using optogenetics in vision restoration is based on pioneering, proprietary research conducted at Wayne State University’s Kresge Eye Institute and Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, and Massachusetts General Hospital. RetroSense has worldwide exclusive rights to the relevant intellectual property from both institutions.
Kousky said RetroSense represented a rare opportunity for angel investors to participate in the biotech space. “The Company’s virtual business model has been capital efficient by leveraging extraordinary talent from around the country. RetroSense is on course to reach a major value inflection point in the clinic, driven by financing from angel investors. It’s exciting to see something as game-changing as vision restoration being fueled by angel investment.
RetroSense CEO Sean Ainsworth agrees, recalling the long odds his company has already overcome in its quest to restore sight to the blind. “It’s really exciting and an honor to win the Villalobos Award, which highlights some of the amazing innovations that can come to life through the power of angel investing. Our angel-backed round has enabled us to complete studies needed to enter clinical trials and will fund early clinical development.”