It's tough times for biotech investors, not much disagreement there. But in covering one of the deals of the week, we found a bright spot. The deal was Biogen Idec's purchase of rights to Knopp Neurosciences' Phase II ALS treatment for $80 million upfront, a sum comprised of a $20 million license fee and $60 million for equity in the privately-held Pittsburgh firm.
Knopp told our Pink Sheet colleagues that the $80 million was in essence more than it needed for its ongoing operations. Its lead drug, KNS-760704 for ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease -- although a new study questions whether Gehrig had his eponymous disease or something else) is now in Biogen's hands, and the smaller firm is back to discovery work.
Instead of squirreling away the extra cash for a rainy day, however, Knopp gave it back to its investors, which are a mix of low-profile institutional investors, angels and family foundations. "Ah!" we thought, our little reptilian deal-brains churning, "An exit via license! How exotic!"
But no. The investors who got the distribution kept all their equity. Every last dime, according to Tom Petzinger, a former Wall Street Journal-ist who runs the firm's business development and public affairs. It wasn't an exit, and it wasn't a share buyback (or a private version thereof). Nor did shareholders sell to Biogen, whose $60 million equity purchase was from the company itself. It was, basically, a one-off dividend, or as Petzinger put it, "taking care of our investors."
Indeed, it was a case of Knopp saying this is your money, not ours. Petzinger said there was no quid pro quo, either. If and when Knopp finds itself in need of cash, the investors are under no obligation to re-up.
But he and the rest of management like to think that their gesture today will create investor goodwill in the future. "It might be a highly unusual move, but it doesn't mean it's not highly appropriate or strategic," Petzinger said.
Imagine that: a biopharmceutical startup in 2010 happily giving up cash that, for now, it doesn't need.
by Alex Lash
Medco/United BioSource: Any doubts about the importance of outcomes-based research in the post-health care reform era, look no further than Medco’s August 16 announcement that it plans to acquire the Bethesda, Md-based information services company United BioSource Corp. (UBC) for $730 million. The tie-up gives the pharmacy benefit manager a new business capability--drug outcomes based research for biopharma companies--that's likely to be a valuable service in the comparative effectiveness era in which we now reside. Among other things, UBC is the market leader in designing and conducting risk evaluation and mitigation strategies (REMS) for new medicines. UBC says it has been involved in the design, implementation and/or assessment of more than 60 REMS and predecessor programs, known as risk minimization action plans. In addition to safety and risk management, UBC focuses on health economics and outcomes research, including drug cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analyses. UBC also brings Medco the capacity to conduct post-approval research in Europe and Japan. Medco's deal with UBC is more strategic in nature than recent moves by CVS Caremark and Express Scripts, PBMs which have aimed to add volume by acquiring large chunks of business from insurers. In July, CVS Caremark announced a 12-year contract with Aetna to manage duties previously handled by the insurer's internal PBM covering 9.7 million plan members. That followed Express Scripts' outright purchase of WellPoint's internal PBM, NextRx, which handles pharmacy benefits for about 25 million.—Cathy Kelly
Aspen/Sigma: The beleaguered Australian-based health care firm Sigma finally bought its way out of a jam, inking a deal this week with South Africa-based Aspen Pharmacare. Under the terms of the deal, Sigma, which is the largest pharmaceutical manufacturer by volume in Australia, will sell its its pharmaceutical group to Africa’s largest drugmaker for 900 million Australian dollars ($811 million). In hiving off the branded and generics drug unit and its most profitable division, Sigma will once again become a wholesale distributor; it will also be able to retire its total debt burden of A$785 million ($654 million). Sigma ran into trouble after spending $2.2 billion to acquire generics maker Arrow in 2005, with write-downs associated with that transaction resulting in a A$389 million loss for the 12 months to January 31, 2010. Interestingly, even though Aspen already has operations in Australia, the company has also commited to a long-term supply, distribution and logistics agreement with Sigma. According to sister publication PharmAsia News, opinions about the deal’s value vary, in part because the continued relationship between the two companies carries execution risks for Aspen. There are risks for Sigma as well, including whether the Aussie company’s new CEO Mark Hooper can find growth in a generics-free company. —Daniel Poppy
BioMarin/ZyStor Therapeutics: In a move to bolster its orphan drug pipeline, BioMarin Pharmaceutical has acquired enzyme replacement specialist ZyStor Therapeutics of Milwaukee for up to $115 million in upfront and milestone payments. As with many recent buyouts of private startups, the deal is back-end loaded, with a modest upfront payment of $22 million plus a $93 million earn-out. As part of the deal, announced August 17, BioMarin gets ZyStor's ZC-701, a novel therapy to treat the inherited enzyme deficiency Pompe disease, as well as a platform to create additional future enzyme replacement therapies. BioMarin says ZC-701 features a faster development timeline and lower projected development costs than its in-house candidate for Pompe disease, BMN-103. (Both compounds are in pre-clinical development.) The deal illustrates the new math currently in operation at many venture-backed companies. In order to advance ZC-701 through proof-of-concept, ZyStor would have had to raise a much larger round of capital; instead ZyStor’s backers, chiefly a syndicate of Midwestern venture firms, chose to sell. Given the $22 million upfront, ZyStor investors got their money back, but only just. The step-up multiple was a meager 1.5x, meaning the deal value was only 50% more than the amount of cash raised privately. Add in the earn-out, and the multiple could rise to 7.9x, higher than the average return for private biotechs acquired in 2009. Alas, BioMarin wouldn't discuss the duration of the earn-out or the timing of specific milestones, except to say that one $13 million payment will be made when the first patient is enrolled in ZC-701's Phase III trials.—Paul Bonanos
Novartis/Quark: Novartis has agreed to pay Quark Pharmaceuticals $10 million for the option to later in-license QPI-1002, a systemically delivered synthetic siRNA currently in Phase II for prevention of acute kidney injury in patients undergoing major cardiovascular surgery and for prophylaxis of delayed graft function in patients receiving kidney transplants. The companies revealed few details of the Aug. 18 agreement. The exercise fee and milestones for '1002 could reach $670 million but Quark CEO Daniel Zurr was not able to break down those biobucks more specifically or say when Novartis' option kicks in. Of course there are royalties on net sales too--if a drug ever reaches the market. In an interview with The Pink Sheet DAILY Zurr could only say he was "quite happy" with the royalty rate. (Gives you the warm fuzzies doesn't it?) Also left unanswered is what this week's tie-up means for Novartis' ongoing collaboration with Alnylam, under which the two companies are developing RNAi candidates in a variety of therapeutic areas. Originally a three-year agreement, Novartis has extended the Alnylam partnership twice for one year, with a termination date coming in October. At that time, Novartis will have to decide whether to non-exclusively license the Alnylam platform and further increase its ownership stake in the RNAi pioneer.--Joseph Haas
Life Technologies/Ion Torrent: This week’s acquisition of Ion Torrent by Life Technologies, for $375 million in cash and stock, continues the flurry of recent activity among gene sequencing instrument providers, who are continuing their march into the next generation of technological innovation. Seven weeks ago, Roche’s 454 Life Sciences bought up rights to IBM’s nanopore-based single molecule sequencing program, and just before that, Pacific Biosciences aligned itself with Gen-Probe. PacBio subsequently completed a $109 million Series F, including $50 million from Gen-Probe, and this week it also announced an IPO filing. Another player, Complete Genomics, filed for an IPO at the end of July and also just raised $39 million in a Series E. Did someone say “Building a war chest?” Unlike its more visible competitors, Ion Torrent’s Personal Genome Machine (PGM), which should hit the market in 2010 and sell for less than $100,000, is still kind of a black box: its capabilities are largely unknown. The heart of the PGM is a novel chemical detection system that directly measures the change in pH after a nucleotide incorporates into target DNA, using what is basically a semiconductor chip layered with an ion sensor. The company, founded by 454’s founder Jonathan Rothberg, gave a splashy demonstration of its machine at the February 2010 Advances in Genome Biology and Technology meeting on Marco Island. But it has not provided specs for the PGM, nor has there been any public third-party validation of the system from early access users. Nonetheless, because of the PGM’s novel detection system and semiconductor-based manufacturing, Ion Torrent has created quite a buzz, fueled in part by its LeBronian unveiling at Marco Island. Unlike PacBio and Complete Genomics, for example, which use optical detection, Ion Torrent could create a different set of users for gene sequencing. “For reasons of cost and footprint, I think that chemical detection-based sequencers can extend toward the clinical setting,” says Leerink Swann director of research, John Sullivan. That said, according to Life Technologies, the initial application for the PGM will be the life sciences [research] market.—Mark Ratner
Abbott/SkyePharma: Back in January FDA declined to approve Skye’s Flutiform fixed-dose combination asthma product, instead issuing a complete response letter. After a June meeting with the agency it became clear the companies would need to conduct additional clinical trials. On August 20 the other shoe dropped, with Abbott backing out of the Flutiform deal (one originally signed by Kos back in 2006 for $25 million up-front and renegotiated slightly by Abbott in 2008), penalty free. Skye hasn’t given up on the project, according to a statement, but won’t be taking home a break-up fee to keep it warm during those cold English summer nights, either. The therapy remains under review in Europe, where--perhaps luckily for Skye--“the regulatory approach is different from the United States,” the release notes. If Skye sees a path forward in the US it’ll try to sign up another marketing partner. For now, nobody seems surprised by Abbott’s decision – yet SkyePharma’s shares still slid 5% on the news.--Chris Morrison
Image courtesy of flickrer pinksherbet used with permission through a creative commons license.