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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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April 14, 2009

Who They?

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Posted by Derek

I try to keep up with the drug-industry news in general, so once in a while I just hop over to Google News and type "pharmaceutical" into the search box. That generally gets me a barrage of press releases, lucky me, and this morning was no different. But what struck me was that basically the whole page of results was talking about companies that either I only vaguely recognized, or (in most cases) had never heard of at all.

Raptor Pharmaceuticals I remembered from somewhere, mostly because of that bizarre name. But then there's a run of who-they names: Nanobac merging with Eureka Genomics? Osprey? Poniard? Tekmira? Stellar? Kanion? Optimer? Come to think of it, I actually have heard of those last folks, although I can't tell you much about them. Looking closer, I find that several of these are generic producers (Kanion, from China) or seem to be more medical-device companies (Stellar), which makes me feel better. Nanobac seems to be the most way-out-there, supposedly focusing on treatment of nanobacteria-related diseases, which is news to me, since last I heard you could start a major shouting match over the question of whether nanobacteria even exist (or even can).

But the others are real drug shops: Tekmira's another RNAi outfit that I'd never heard of, and Poniard seems to be betting on new platinum-based oncology agents. Osprey is working on chemokine fusion proteins. This sort of thing (coming across companies that I'd never realized existed) always cheers me up, actually. I continue to think that one of the US's main strengths is the ability to fund ideas, to try all sorts of things out in the hopes that something interesting will turn up. I want there to be many more companies than I have time to keep up with or even hear of. That, to me, is the sign of a healthy research culture.

Which is what has me worried, given the current economic climate. This is not a particularly good time to get a small company off the ground, to put it mildly. Will there be a notch cut into the startup population as the years go on? How deep and broad will it be?

Comments (14) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Drug Industry History


1. Petros on April 14, 2009 9:01 AM writes...

And don't forget the propensity of some of these smaller companies to change name, sometimes reflecting a major change in strategy.

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2. Ken on April 14, 2009 9:08 AM writes...

Tekmira is actually a publicly traded Canadian company (TKM.TO) and has been around for a couple years. They just filed their first IND, though, to treat high LDL cholesterol (ApoB) using siRNA delivered via its proprietary lipid construct, SNALP. They have significant partnerships with Alnyalm and Roche, as well as doing exploratory work with JNJ and BMS among others. Not to worry, though, Tekmira has enough cash to carry them through the end of 2010 and is generating more through its production of SNALP for its partners and other biopharmas now "kicking the tires."

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3. CF on April 14, 2009 9:16 AM writes...

My understanding is that closed venture funds are up this year over the same time last year.

VCs will shoot themselves (or each other) in the foot if they all clamor for the few attractive (early) phase II opportunities.

Fingers crossed this means VCs will push earlier on good management teams with targeted lead-like compounds. (Or - gasp - platforms, for those VCs who really back their understanding of science and value and are prepared to price a mixed service-discovery business model).

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4. Tyrosine on April 14, 2009 10:42 AM writes...

"Starting up in a Down Economy"

The above article goes on to describe why a recession can prove to be advantageous for startups. To summarize, while startups have trouble getting money, other elements such as talent are suddenly easier to come by. You can also negotiate favorable terms with suppliers (such as, I'll pay you in a year) and find cheap rent. The startup phase, especially in pharma, doesn't involve revenues so a healthy economy is not as relevant as it may be for other industries (say restaurants).

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5. Peter on April 14, 2009 1:48 PM writes...


Unfair to include them in a list of little-known microcaps. They have a market cap of over $400m, and their stock is near an all-time high.

They have what very much looks like a potential blockbuster treatment for a very nasty bug - C. diff. This infection is proving harder and harder to treat as resistant strains have become more common. Currently the standard treatment is vancomycin or, for those hospitals that are too cheap to use vanco, the clearly inferior Flagyl. (Incidentally Viropharma's fight with the FDA's OGD over a potential generic oral vanco is quite an interesting battle).

Anyhow, Optimer's oral drug candidate, now called Fidaxomicin, (previously OPT-80) is a narrow-spectrum first-in-class macrocycle designed to inhibit RNA polymerase while producing little systemic exposure. One big advantage over vanco is a lower relapse rate. The company had a successful Phase III late last year in which they demonstrated non-inferiority to vanco on all endpoints (in fact they demonstrated superiority on some endpoints, notably recurrence rate.)

Here's a link to the trial results:

Their second Phase III should report in a few months as far as I know.

(Disclaimer - I own stock in OPTR although I am not associated with the company in any way).

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6. HelicalZz on April 14, 2009 1:51 PM writes...

To tweak the closing comment, it may not be the easiest time to get a small company off the ground, but it probably is indeed the best time. Funds are hard to come by, but not talent and ideas never seen to have recessions.

I can't lay my hands on it, but there is a well known study that found companies that start in recessionary environments tend to thrive better than those that start in flush times. Not really a surprise when one thinks about it.


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7. mendes on April 14, 2009 4:56 PM writes...

The future of the industry is going to be licensing compounds from little Biotech industries. I would expect investments to increase in that direction due to the inability of Big Pharma to be productive. Its going to be very interesting to see if the Obama administration is able to put the 35% tax increase on companies that offshore jobs and built facilities offshore at the expense of American Jobs. Its a double whamy for the US- loss of tax from people who lost work in the US and loss of the 35% tax from the companies that offshore. The question of being competitive does not arise for these companies since the talent pool and quality of research done in the US is far better than the far east!

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8. InfMP on April 14, 2009 8:56 PM writes...

I heard Optimer was in business with Danishef and possibly sold ready-made monosaccarides (donors/acceptors, appropriately protected) at very high cost since they must be made manually

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9. Cobalt on April 14, 2009 9:25 PM writes...

Optimer is Chi-Huey Wong's company. A number of the Scripps faculty are on the advisory board along with Danishefsky.

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10. Biovation on April 15, 2009 8:06 AM writes...

Starting up is not for the faint hearted or those with no structured plans. As long as the start up has a strong business proposition and is prepared to work their butt out selling it, any time is a good time to start up.

In fact, economic downturn is probably the best time to start cause only the fittest will survive, meaning that unviable businesses will die a quick and natural death, minimising unnecessary wastage of resources. Unlike the case in a buoyant economy where such unviable businesses will be able to ride the tide of euphoria to eventually fail or worse perform mediocrely, wasting precious resources at best and depriving other more viable businesses of much needed investments

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11. Biotech Analyst on April 15, 2009 9:06 AM writes...

Petros has a good point. For example, Poniard used to be NeoRx, a long-time Seattle biotech company. NeoRx fell on hard times and got a new CEO who renamed the company and moved it to the SF Bay Area.

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12. Dave on April 15, 2009 11:36 AM writes...

You are one lazy reporter. I, too, use Google to keep track of subjects of interest. I've been tracking Nanobac Pharmaceuticals for a couple years. That's how I came across your uninformed rant.

Had you but Googled the name, you might have come across their joint research with Mayo Clinic and NASA, just for openers.

I have no direct interest in Nanobac, other than an interest in anything related to heart disease (my own, in particular).

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13. Kismet on April 15, 2009 3:17 PM writes...

Who's ranting, Dave? Oh, and do you know the heartscan blog by Dr. Davis? Damn fine blog.

Derek, outstanding blog, almost finished reading every article you've written (I'm addicted to good blogs). Especially cool to see someone from the industry cover life extension topics.

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14. Immune on April 23, 2009 11:40 AM writes...

Actually I just moved to RTP area (without a job) and am actively networking. Coming across all these people who got laid off and are starting their own companies with all the experience they have gained. Kind of makes sense 'cos if no one else will hire them right now, may be they can get some consultancies or contract work to make some money. I also met some people who are starting their own R&D companies and are filing patents etc. A majority of these people are ex-GSK. Hopefully, some of these will survive.

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