AIM-HI to Award $1 Million in Seed Funding to Female-Led Oncology Startup

The AIM-HI Accelerator Fund, a spin-off of the National Foundation for Cancer Research, aims to award $1 million to a female-led startup focused on meeting unmet needs across the oncology landscape. The organization is currently accepting applications for its 2021 Women’s Venture Competition.

Based in Rockville, Maryland, the AIM-HI Accelerator Fund bridges the gap between innovative, early-stage cancer research and the successful development of high-impact oncology products. The fund’s goal is to assist these early startups to cross through the so-called “Valley of Death” funding gap that can carry a therapeutic asset or device into the clinic. AIM-HI, founded in 2019, hopes its financing model will mimic the success the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation found when it backed Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals when that company was in its early stages. Today, Vertex has developed some of the leading therapeutics for the majority of cystic fibrosis patients.

The 2021 Women’s Venture Competition is the second such outing launched by AIM-HI. Earlier this year, the financing group announced Boston-based Privo Technologies as the winner of its inaugural women’s competition. The company, which is tackling oral cancer, took home $900,000 in financing from the event. Privo, helmed by Manijeh Goldberg, has developed a nano-engineered platform for redesigning potent cancer medicines’ mechanism of action. Privo was one of 47 applicants who vied for the prize, Bradley Gillenwater, Senior Director for Global Programs at the AIM-HI Accelerator Fund said.

Aim-HI typically provides between $200,000 and $600,000 in early investments to life sciences startups. Gillenwater said the company’s investment strategy is somewhat bold. They typically back a company in the earliest stages, before most venture capital firms risk their money. AIM-HI examines the science behind the company before making its move. And that strategy seems to be paying off, not only for the company’s they back but also for AIM-HI itself.

“The venture capital community is learning who we are, and they recognize the due diligence we put into our investments,” Gillenwater said. He added AIM-HI’s early involvement provides those venture firms a sense of confidence in the science.

The Women’s Venture Competition is another idea AIM-HI launched not only to back science that has the potential to save lives but also provides an additional opportunity to female scientists who are sometimes overlooked for their contributions to research and the business community. Gillenwater said women are fairly well represented in Ph.D. programs and in laboratories, but in front-facing roles of companies, they are still underrepresented.

“We wanted to do something that was specific to women,” he said and added the women’s competition allows the fund to distinguish itself from other seed financing vehicles.

Pointing to data from the Association for Women in Science, Gillenwater said women-led biotech start-ups had received less than 15% of angel funding and only 2% of venture capital. AIM-HI’s Women’s Venture Competition was launched to address this unmet need and provide critical seed capital and advisory and networking opportunities to early-stage oncology technology companies led by women.

Applications for the 2021 contest will be accepted until May 15. Companies that enter must be pre-Series A financing companies with a woman in senior leadership who has an equity stake in the company.

Last year, six of the 47 applicants were from companies in the BioHealth Capital Region.

Once all the applications are received, a committee will narrow down the candidates to a small number of companies. A second investor committee will then determine the eventual winner. Gillenwater said the committee will look for proof of demonstration in oncology and will pay close attention to the science and its potential to benefit patients. The committee will also be tasked with determining whether or not the winning company will provide a return on investment for AIM-HI.