Third Rock Ventures launches startup targeting hearing loss

A team of investors led by Boston’s Third Rock Ventures raised $52 million to launch a startup to develop therapies that treat hearing loss, a condition that affects an estimated 50 million people in the United States and 360 million worldwide.

Decibel Therapeutics will be based in Cambridge and led initially by Third Rock partner and cofounder Kevin Starr. Starr, who will be interim chief executive, said the company will set up shop at 215 First St. in the Athenaeum building near Kendall Square and hopes to have 50 to 60 scientists and researchers working there by the end of next year.


“We’re hiring like crazy,” Starr said. “This is one of those big-space, big-idea companies that we think will have an impact on millions of patients and their families. And this is one of those new frontiers where researchers can pioneer some new discoveries.”

Starr said Third Rock, joined by the drug giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC’s venture arm, SR One, in the initial funding round, has been working with leading auditory neuroscience researchers for the past 2½ years on the idea for Decibel.

It won’t have the field to itself. Another hearing-related company, Frequency Therapeutics Inc., of Cambridge, was started last year by Robert Langer, institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has helped launch dozens of biotech and medical technology startups. Frequency will be trying to regenerate hair cells to improve hearing in the inner ear.

Decibel’s scientific cofounders are M. Charles Liberman, director of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary; Gabriel Corfas, director of the Kresge Hearing Research Institute at the University of Michigan; Ulrich Muller, director of the Dorris Neuroscience Center in San Diego; and Albert Edge, director of the Tillotson Cell Biology Unit at Mass. Eye and Ear.

Liberman said Decibel hopes to develop a range of therapies to both halt the degeneration of hearing and regenerate hearing by repairing damage in the inner ear.


Most of today’s treatments are medical devices such as hearing aids and implants that amplify sound but don’t help aging patients distinguish background noise from regular noise.

“After 42 years at the bench doing basic science, I couldn’t be more excited to be helping bring new therapies to market,” Liberman said. “It’s clear that we’re on the threshhold of a whole new era where we’re going to have therapies for inner ear disorders.”

The company will also seek to develop therapies to help children and adult patients who have suffered hearing loss due to side effects from drugs to treat cancer and cystic fibrosis.

Robert Weisman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.