Friday, December 12, 2008

Deals of the Week: Don't Worry Be Happy

Because life needs an optimistic soundtrack. This week In Vivo Blog is adopting the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" motto made famous by Bobby McFerrin in the 80s on the sage advice of Christoph Westphal, CEO of GSK's Sirtris.

At MassBio's annual event on Dec. 9, Westphal urged audience members to think about the opportunities the current financial crisis has created. "I think many of you who are well-financed [also] are going to be able to build even stronger teams and do exciting things," Westphal said, according to "The Pink Sheet" DAILY. His other piece of wisdom? "I think the important things is to always be very well financed and to keep on a momentum path, so that the venture guys don't get nervous on you," he said.

Ah, sweet mystery of life. At last I know the secret of it all.

Sadly, Westphal's recipe for success came too late for folks at Emisphere, XTL, Panacos, and Elan, which all officially joined the ranks of IVB's "troubled biotechs" list this week. The fall-out for Elan was swift and particularly ugly. You can bet CEO Kelly Martin is having a hard time making "Happy Talk" these days. On Friday, the firm announced it was cutting 114 jobs and closing its Tokyo and New York offices, as it attempts to offset the slower growth of its lead drug Tysabri and strengthen its balance sheet. Whether or not the move goes far enough to appease increasingly angry shareholders remains to be seen. (On Thursday, Jack Schuler, former president of Abbott Labs and a 1% stakeholder in Elan, wrote a letter to its board expressing frustration at money wasted on private jets and an excessive number of company offices.) If it doesn't, Martin may have to change his tune to "You're not the boss of me now".

Certainly, Merck executives are clearly in "why worry now?" mode; after all there should be laughter after pain. Clearly their new initiative in follow-on biologics is going to be the answer to recent slower growth of Gardasil and the on-going fall-out from the Vytorin mess. Sadly, the same can't be said for Eli Lilly, which got caught flat-footed at its analyst day. When asked about Lilly's own potential interest in FOBs, CEO John Lechleiter clearly wasn't prepared for the question. “We’re very much considering it. It’s something we’re looking at,” he replied. GEEZ. IVB's response: De do do do, de da da da is all I want to say to you.

We bet next time Lechleiter get asked that question he won't be fooled again. If the news has got you singing the blues, we have the solution (and maybe even a lyric). It's that time again...

BMS/Exelixis: At Exelixis, it's love the one you’re with. Exelixis first began collaborating with Bristol back in 1999 – when the biotech was still basically a platform operation, using worm and insect models to define mechanisms for Bristol compounds. As the relationship deepened, Exelixis leaned heavily on Bristol to help it step up to a product development strategy – swapping, for example, targets and access to its biology platform for access to Bristol’s combinatorial chemistry and a later-stage cancer compound (see this 2002 In Vivo analysis for more). In the next deal, Exelixis paid back virtually the entire price of its X-Ceptor acquisition by selling Bristol a couple of X-Ceptor cardiovascular compounds. A year later it turned once again to Bristol to sign a more elaborate oncology agreement on some early-stage assets. So it was only natural that when GlaxoSmithKline turned down its option on a small collection of Exelixis cancer compounds, including the Phase III XL184 – presumably because of a mechanistic overlap with another Exelixis compound GSK had already optioned – the biotech would turn back to its most important partner. And their long relationship no doubt accounted for Scangos’ confidence, as he implied to IN VIVO at the time, that he’d be able to partner the product before year-end. In the current confidence-less market, Big Pharma partnerships are again becoming key – but ultimately informationless -- imprimaturs for the value of small company technology. The news of the Bristol deal (in return for rights to XL184 and the Phase I XL281, Bristol will pay $195 million upfront; $45 million guaranteed next year and fund most of the development expenses for XL184, all for XL281) prompted investors to return almost exactly the same amount of share value that the GSK “no thank you” had prompted them to subtract two months before. The equivalence is surprising: since the inception of their relationship in 2002, GSK has spent a total of $260 million with Exelixis (including an $85 million loan). The latest Bristol deal alone will put a guaranteed $240 million into Exelixis’s bank account (roughly $2 a share in cash – though since the stock was up only $1.22 on the day, you could actually argue that investors see the deal as value destroying). Or to put it another way: Exelixis got paid twice – first by GSK; and now by Bristol. Good deal. Kind of odd investors don’t get that.

Valeant/Dow Pharma: Valeant executives are likely crooning "I've got you under my skin" this week, after acquiring privately-held Dow Pharma, a Petaluma-based derm company founded in 1977, for $285 million in cash, plus another $200 million in milestones. Ever since Valeant scored a $125 million up-front payment from GSK earlier this summer for its late-stage epilepsy drug retigabine, the company has been buying up dermatology-focused companies in a valiant effort to solidify its standing as major derm spec pharma player. In mid-September the company paid $95 million for Coria Laboratories, a division of the privately held spec pharma DFB Pharmaceuticals, to gain its marketed acne products and the CeraVe skin care line. In November it spent another $12 million on DermaTech, which sells a number of over-the-counter products for sunburn, warts, and dry, itchy skin. This latest deal--at roughly 4.5 times Dow's annual revenues--shows the amount of money companies are willing to shell out for revenue-generating entities. (It also shows just how bad things are out there--it used to be that kind of multiple--while not small--wouldn't have raised many eyebrows. Not in this climate.) In addition to an approved topical drug for mild-to-moderate acne called Acanya, Dow also has a healthy service business providing topical formulations to other pharmaceutical companies. In 2008 that side of Dow's business generated $25 million in revenue, helping to offset the company's internal R&D burn. In addition to Acanya, Valeant gains five development-stage dermatology products and a revenue stream from previously out-licensed products that runs about $20 million annually. Valeant clearly believes that by morphing into a derm player it might have more success, particularly given the safety-first regulatory climate and penny-pinching payers. Topical products are less likely to raise red flags at the FDA because they are not absorbed systemically and private-pay line of cosmetics avoids the reimbursers (though the recession might make the out-of-pocket market significantly less attractive). Dow's venture backers clearly aren't complaining: Essex Woodlands, Galen Partners, and Skyline Ventures, which invested $36.5 million in the company in 2005, are more than in the clear given Valeant's proposed purchase price.

Novartis Option Fund/Ascent: Employees at tiny Cambridge, MA-based Ascent, which was in stealth mode until last month, are likely rocking out to U2's "It's a beautiful day." The company announced that Novartis, together with its option fund, had signed a deal to develop drug candidates against a specific GPCR target. The aggreement includes an undisclosed upfront fee and potential milestones totaling over $200 million, as well as royalties. It's also some validation for the biotech's nascent so-called Pepducin technology. GPCRs are one of the biopharma industry's favorite targets when it comes to developing new therapeutics (according to some sources, 40 - 50% of all marketed drugs target this protein class). Problem is that many of the seven-membrane-domain proteins have proven undruggable--at least with traditional medicinal chemistry approaches. Enter Ascent, which has a nifty technology that allows it to generate short lipopeptide molecules capable of acting as highly specific GPCR inhibitors. To date the company has generated 15 such GPCR inhibitors--at least in vitro--and CEO Rick Jones claims its scientists haven't yet found a receptor they couldn't antagonize (or didn't like). The biotech, which announced a $19 million Series A in November with backing from Novartis Option Fund, Healthcare Ventures, and TVM Capital, plans to identify one suitable IND candidate by mid-2009, probably in inflammation or oncology. As we wrote here, Novartis Option Fund is one of two option funds recently launched by Novartis. Both buy equity in companies and simultaneously secure options on other products, adding a business development spin to the funds' more traditional venture functions.

Unilever/Phytopharm: Unilever, retailer of Dove soap and Pond's cold cream, sang a modified version of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair'' this week, when it announced it was washing its hands of Hoodia, a functional food extract for weight management developed by Phytopharm. All the orignal patents and rights will revert to the UK-based Phytopharm; in addition, Unilever has granted the company a "non-exclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free licence, with the right to sub-license, to any Unilever patents, intellectual property rights and know-how connected with the Hoodia programme" according to a press-release. Whew, I'm sure that makes Phytopharm's board feel much better. Phytopharm's chairman Alistair Taylor announced the news in true British fashion--with a stiff upper lip--and did his best to spin the "disappointing" news positively: "We are pleased to have agreed [on] termination terms with Unilever which enable us to take the product forward with another partner. Phytopharm continues to believe strongly that there are alternative product formats and applications for the commercialisation of Hoodia." Maybe, but this isn't the first time a partner has given the extract back to Phytopharm. According to FDC-Windhover's Strategic Transactions database, Phytopharm first licensed Hoodia from South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1997, then offered Pfizer worldwide development and marketing rights to the compound in 1998. Following the closure of its nutraceuticals group, Pfizer returned its rights to Phytopharm in July 2003.

AZ/Infinity: Infinity execs are channeling their inner Soup Dragons--or maybe they prefer the Stones' rendition?--this week. Yes, readers, they are free to do what they want with their HSP90 inhibitor program, thanks to the pocket full of cash (not kryptonite) they recently received from Purdue Pharma and its affiliate Mundipharma. As we reported in "The Pink Sheet" DAILY, Infinity will pay AZ nothing upfront to get back full control of its Phase III injectable, IPI-504, as well as its Phase I oral compound, IPI-493. As part of the break-up, AZ will pay its development obligations for another six months; if Infinity manages to launch a product, it will owe AZ a single-digit royalty. Although some have speculated that AZ saw something it didn't like in the ongoing HSP90 trials, there's no indication currently of increased clinical or regulatory risk associated with program, which includes a Phase III study in refractory gastro-intestinal stromal tumors and earlier stage studies in other indications. Instead, the break-up appears to be a case of an evolutionary incompatibility, marking the definitive end of a deal Infinity had originally signed with MedImmune, then an independent company. AZ certainly wasn't gettin' sentimental over the terms it inherited-- in particular, the 50/50 profit split MedImmune accepted because it lacked small-molecule and oncology expertise. Moreover, AZ didn't feel it particularly needed Infinity's expertise given it's world-leading oncology franchise primarily focused on small molecule drugs. It's not unreasonable to assume the two companies were in discussions to renegotiate the terms of the partnership--the current financial crisis has made such discussions commonplace. But Infinity's deal with Purdue in late November gave it the freedom to change the nature of any on-going talks. Thanks to Purdue and Mundipharma largesse--they agreed to fund virtually all of Infinity's R&D through at least 2013 and bought $45 million worth of equity at a 100% premium in return for ex-US rights to Infinity's pipeline (the exception being the HSP90 program)--Infinity can afford to re-acquire the program, gaining full rights to a relatively late-stage asset. Indeed, given the generous terms Exelixis got from Bristol on another Big Pharma-rejected Phase III cancer program -- see note above -- Infinity execs are undoubtedly practicing an up-tempo version of "Hey Big Spender".

(Photo courtesy of flickr user jovike through a creative commons license.)

1 comment: said...

Totally agree with your attitude. Any crisis is always a great chance at the same time. Moment to find out new perspectives, chance to discover new ways and opportunities.