HAYA rises to the top: The Vaud-based startup ranks first at the TOP 100 Swiss Startup Award 2023. The biotech company leverages the power of the dark genome to develop precise and potent RNA therapies for reprogramming disease-driving cell states. HAYA was founded in 2019 by Samir Ounzain (CEO) and Daniel Blessing (CTO) and ranked 8th in 2022.
Twenty years ago, it was thought that the essential building blocks of the human genome had been decoded. But this optimism was premature: about 98% of our DNA is still referred to as dark matter (‘dark genome’) – in other words, unknown territory. Researchers and companies hope to find the answers to the question of which building blocks in the genome control which cell processes.
A lot of research still needs to be done in order that all molecular biological processes can be understood. In the future, this would open up the possibility of treating diseases in a targeted and effective manner; for example, fibrosis where fibrotic tissue, which is responsible for wound healing, multiplies unchecked. In the case of cardiac fibrosis, the heart wall thickens, performance decreases, and can lead to heart failure. Apart from a heart transplant, almost no effective treatment exists.
Lausanne-based biotech startup HAYA Therapeutics is one of the first companies in the world to get things moving: In 2017, the team led by molecular biologist Samir Ounzain identified the trigger for cardiac fibrosis at the University Hospital of Lausanne – a long, non-coding RNA molecule (lncRNA) called Wisper.
Based on these findings, from 2019 co-founder Daniel Blessing developed a customized drug. This is currently in the preclinical phase. “We are progressing well according to our plans and hope to Roosstart clinical trials in 12 to 18 months,” says Ounzain. The startup founder appears dressed casually in a t-shirt and cap for the interview in the ‘Serine’ building on the Biopôle Campus. The area at the end of the Lausanne metro line is already one of the largest Medtech and Biotech parks in Switzerland, accommodates about 2,500 people, and is currently being expanded by six buildings with research and development space and offices. Everything is represented: from pharmaceutical companies to biotech start-ups.