Thursday, July 30, 2009

Financings of the Fortnight: Sunshine Breaking Through?

No one we know would say that biotech’s financing drought is ending. Hardly seems possible.

But conversations are taking on--dare we say it-- a slightly more optimistic tone. The Nasdaq biotech index, for one thing, continues its upwards trajectory. Most of that performance, we admit, stems from good news out of big-cap players like Elan, Amgen, Gilead and maybe a few others. It’s not a sustained small-cap phenomenon – yet.

Certainly no one’s predicting the imminent opening of an IPO window (closest thing we’ve seen to a pharma IPO filing is Vitamin Shoppe).

Indeed, there are plenty of what we’d probably call financings-under-duress, the kind of deals both investors and companies have to do to keep fighting. Oxigene, for example, followed the Alexza pattern in buying back, at a discount, its financing partnership with Symphony Capital – saddling Symphony with a lot more stock in Oxigene, and thus a lot more risk. More upside, too, of course – but that wasn’t what Symphony’s model was designed for.

We’d also note that pharma continues to provide not merely the only exits for biotech, but a fairly substantial percentage of its financing, too. Corporate VC remains at center stage – with the Avila financing from the Novartis Option Fund only the most recent example.

But a few bits of unexpectedly good news are at least quickening the industry’s pulse. Human Genome Sciences surprised the market by meeting the primary endpoint in the first of two Phase III trials on Benlysta, the first lupus drug in years to actually show real clinical results. HGS acted fast and raised more than $300 million – the industry’s biggest common-stock offering since Vertex raised $320 million back in February. Orexigen, too, raised a not-too-shabby $75 million after it announced that its obesity drug Contrave had met virtually all of its clinical goals in its Phase III programs.

And deals like Amgen’s with GlaxoSmithKline on denosumab likewise indicate why biotech does have an argument or two in its long-term favor. GSK paid a ton of money for a relatively limited set of rights – indeed, most surprisingly, agreeing to split indications on the drug with Amgen (you’ll remember that Amgen virtually destroyed the split-indication deal nearly a quarter of a century ago with its EPO deal with Johnson & Johnson).

And for those cock-eyed optimists in the group, there is some talk about IPOs. Quiet talk, perhaps. But at least a few people have speculated about Portola, which thanks to big deals with Novartis and Merck, doesn’t have to worry about financing expensive later-stage trials for the next several years and can instead focus on advancing its earlier-stage programs. And should either elinogrel (with Novartis) or betrixaban (with Merck) prove particularly interesting, well, there’s a nice little tinge of acquisition in the air to entice an IPO investor.

So, on that optimistic note, let’s get to some of the more interesting deals we’ve seen over the last fourteen days.

Avila Therapeutics: In a deal that combines equity financing with an option on an early-stage research program, Novartis Option Fund led a $30 million Series B financing on July 27 for Avila Therapeutics, which uses its proprietary Avilomics platform to design and develop covalent drugs in the areas of cancer, autoimmune disease and viral infection (you can see our write-up from The Pink Sheet” DAILY, here). NOF is a $200 million fund that seeds innovative companies through initial and follow-on investments – the initial investment is coupled with a program option to provide early validation of the company’s technology. Avila says it will use the proceeds to advance its first program into clinical development – its lead programs are a protease inhibitor for hepatitis C (AVL181) and a molecule targeting the Btk kinase (AVL291), an emerging target in oncology and autoimmune disease. The Waltham, Mass.-based company did not say which of those programs would advance to clinical development first, and neither company identified the therapeutic target of the program for which NOF has option rights. Avila says its drugs work through protein-silencing – the molecules’ covalent nature enables them to bond strongly, selectively and resiliently to disease-causing proteins, theoretically producing superior therapeutic outcomes. The drug candidates’ covalent bonding also makes them effective against mutations in disease targets, according to Avila. Participating with NOF in the Series B were Avila’s original investors – Abingworth, Advent Venture Partners, Atlas Venture and Polaris Venture Partners. The four VC firms staked Avila with $21.3 million in Series A funding in 2007, and also made a convertible debt purchase this past May that initially brought Avila $5 million and eventually could yield $15 million. – Joe Haas

Limerick Biopharma: South San Francisco, Calif.-based Limerick recently raised $15 million in a Series C round with its existing investors to begin advancing its Cellular Transport Pump Activators into clinical development. Giving the company some additional credibility, Corey Goodman, co-founder of Exelixis and Renovis and more recently the head of Pfizer’s Biotherapeutics and Bioinnovation Center, took on the chairman’s job (he’s served on Limerick’s board since 2007). Limerick’s CTPAs offer promise both as chaperone therapies and in monotherapy for cholesterol disorders. Primarily, CTPAs are intended for adjunctive use with existing or experimental drugs to improve their side-effect profiles and efficacy by activating cellular transport pumps to redistribute drugs away from areas where they have adverse effects. In theory, this will minimize toxic side effects without reducing a drug’s intended activity. While testing its candidates in the areas of immunosuppression and pain, however, Limerick also discovered that CTPAs remove cholesterol from peripheral and pancreatic beta cells, lowering serum cholesterol and glucose. The company’s secondary goal, therefore, is to develop CTPAs as therapies for hypercholesterolemia and hyperglycemia. Founded by Wendye Robbins, a Stanford professor and former president of NeurogesX, Limerick has raised $35.5 million total since 2006. The July 15 Series C was led by OVP Venture Partners, which previously was known only for leading seed and Series A rounds. In addition to OVP, Limerick’s other returning investors include Altitude funds, Arch Venture Partners and Sevin Rosen Funds. The firm hopes the current round can provide funding through proof-of-concept of one of its lead programs – one is set to begin Phase I study in immunosuppression this year, while another that could enter the clinic in 2010 will be targeted at metabolic disease. – Joe Haas

Cognition Therapeutics: There are a few drugs on the market that treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but the goal is to actually stop disease progression. Along with the actual scientific challenge of figuring out how to treat the disease, there’s also the problem in testing candidates: trials for such drugs are expensive and long. Plenty of costly failures litter the way (like Myriad Genetics’s Flurizan in Phase III—closely following Lundbeck’s lost $100 million up-front payment in their deal for the candidate). But the medical need and economic opportunity for solving the Alzheimer’s problem keep producing big new deals. For proof, just see Pfizer’s deal for dimebon and J&J’s recent investment in Elan’s Alzheimer’s immunotherapy program including bapineuzumab. Financing for biotechs breaking into the disease-modifying arena is picking up too (see Satori Pharmaceuticals), and now Cognition Therapeutics has pulled down a $1.2 million Series A financing—through the sale of equity and conversion of notes--from investors led by Ogden CAP. Founded in 2007, the company is developing small-molecule inhibitors of toxic beta amyloid oligomers, which are associated with memory loss and neurodegeneration. The start-up’s drug libraries were licensed from California State University Channel Islands where they were designed by former Amgen medicinal chemist Gilbert Rishton, PhD, who is now Cognition’s chief scientific advisor. Rishton’s chemical conditioning method takes extracts from terrestrial and ocean plants and adds chemical reagents to produce the low molecular-weight candidates, which are eventually screened in cellular assays that monitor the toxic oligomer’s effects on biological functions in mature primary hippocampal neurons. Cognition was seeded in 2007 with $200,000 in funding from Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, which also participated in the current round.—Amanda Micklus

OxiGene: On July 21 OxiGene announced two financing events that will keep it alive for another year -- through the third quarter of 2010. The company, which works on vascular disrupting agents, closed a registered direct offering that grossed $10 million. It sold 6.25 million shares at $1.60, a 20% discount based on the ten-day pre-announcement average, as well as short- and long-term warrants to purchase up to 5.6 million in common shares. It also managed to grab another $12 million by buying back Symphony Vida Holdings, an off-balance sheet entity created with private equity firm Symphony Capital Partners. In October 2008 Symphony provided Vida with $15 million in cash to support development of OxiGene’s Oxi4503 (combretastatin A1 diphosphate), which is in Phase I for solid tumors, and Zybrestat (fosbretabulin) in ophthalmology. At the time, Symphony granted OxiGene a four-year option to acquire Vida for twice the amount that Symphony invested in the entity. But Sympony would only make that money if OxiGene lasted that long. So OxiGene is issuing Symphony $12.5 million in stock to pay for Vida ($2.5 million less than Symphony actually put into the financing vehicle) to get the $12 million cash still in the vehicle -- with Symphony now into OxiGene a lot more deeply than it ever planned to be (it owns 44% of the biotech). More or less the same thing happened with Symphony’s original deal with Alexza – which likewise bought back the Symphony vehicle for a big slug of stock, giving Symphony a 23% stake.—Amanda Micklus

Image from Flickr user Magh and used under a creative commons license.

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