The B-word is back, and it rhymes with "trouble." With 21 US IPOs in April alone, no wonder the barbarians are lined up at the gates, clamoring to get a piece.
There have been 31 initial filings this month, the most active month since 40 companies filed in August 2007, according to IPO watchers Renaissance Capital. Exciting, no? So how many of these newly minted or wannabe public companies are in our little corner of the world? Two IPOs, Tranzyme and Sagent Pharmaceuticals, and no new filings.
Let that sink in for a moment. It's Bubble 2.0, or 3.0, or 6.0, with little old ladies in Pasadena trying to grab a piece of Facebook on private secondary markets, and not a single biotech firm filed papers this month.
Now, there might be some moral high ground in keeping one's distance from ye olde irrational exuberance. A bubble is generally a bad thing, leading to Pets.com and far too much exposure of Angelo Mozilo's tanning-bed face. No wonder the other side is protesting too much. See how hard this tech VC argues that the current mania is anything but a bubble?
But to those on the bio side of the fence, the lush green grass of Mark Zuckerberg's backyard looks awfully tempting. At BayBio last week, when talk on a mid-stage funding panel got around to building strong biotech companies, Pfizer business-development executive Jim McLoughlin cautioned other panelists to think long-term and not create a bubble. (As if they could.) Versant Ventures managing director Camille Samuels jumped in: "Hey, I'll take a bubble!"
She said it with a laugh, but consider the VC's alternative these days: Waiting for guys like McLoughlin (and the committees behind them) to decide they like your portfolio firm's Phase II asset enough to offer a modest up-front payment and earn-outs or milestones.
European investment firm LSP Life Science Partners isn't waiting around for the private equity exit ramp to materialize. Not only is it launching a public-equity fund, it has floated the fund, dubbed LSP Life Sciences Fund, on Euronext Amsterdam.
The firm claims a 150% return on public investments, which it began making in 2008 on behalf of Dutch pension fund administrator APG Investments. Its new dedicated fund, for which it raised £30 to £35 million privately, follows in the footsteps of life-science VCs like Abingworth, MPM Capital, and OrbiMed Advisors who have begun straddling the fence in recent years. On the private side, LSP's fifty or so holdings have included Jerini, KuDOS, U3 Pharma and Movetis. The first three sold privately, while Movetis listed in late 2009 before Shire gobbled it up a few months later. Our "Pink Sheet" colleagues will have more on LSP soon, so we don't want to, ahem, burst their bubble. Instead, let's pop the cork on another bottle of...
Synta Pharmaceuticals: On April 15, cancer and inflammation drug discovery company Synta Pharmaceuticals raised $35.2 million in a registered direct offering, the second-highest grossing PIPE this year behind Arena Pharmaceuticals. Synta sold 7.2 million shares at $4.89, a 6% discount to the ten-day average. Company insiders bought about 22% with institutional investors scooping up the rest. After several ups and downs in its ten-year history, Synta is The Little Discovery Engine That Could, dusting itself off after each disappointment. And there have been several. The Shionogi BioResearch spin-off raised more than $200 million in venture financing before a failed IPO attempt in 2005. Less than two years later, and after another $40 million cash infusion, the company finally went public, selling shares at $10 a pop. Soon thereafter it secured its first Big Pharma partner when GSK acquired US co-promote rights to the biotech’s elesclomol, an apoptosis-inducing candidate that disrupts cancer cell energy metabolism. But Synta got a shock in March 2009 when Phase III trials in metastatic melanoma showed more deaths in the elescomol arm than with the standard-of-care arm, and the trial was shut down. GSK returned rights, but not before forking over $130 million. After the elesclomol failure, Synta has pinned its hopes on its lead compound the Hsp90 inhibitor ganetespib, which is unpartnered.* For the April 15 RD offering, Synta issued no warrants and did not use an underwriter. -- Amanda Micklus
Silence Therapeutics: The shingle Silence hung out to advertise a placement of 275 million shares, with hopes of grossing up to £5.5 million, is a sign of the times for the RNA interference crowd. Silence is the latest RNAi firm to find itself in financial or strategic difficulties, and if shareholders don't approve the new stock sale, announced April 25, the company says it will run out of cash by the end of the third quarter. Whether or not that transpires, Silence says it is shutting down its California office, a legacy from its December 2009 merger with Intradigm, and looking to replace CEO Phil Haworth. When Silence and Intradigm tied the knot, the firms hoped their combination would speed the development of delivery systems, a major obstacle in turning fragile short interfering RNAs into viable therapeutics that reach their intended targets. Investors such as Alta Partners and Frazier Healthcare also backed the merged entity with a £15 million financing priced at 23 pence a share. If that sounds bad, please note that the new placement is priced at 2 pence a share. No, that's not a typo. Momentum in RNAi has been on the wane for the past two years, then came big red flags last fall when two major partners of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals delivered bad news. First Novartis, a 13% owner of the biotech, passed on an expensive option to expand its collaboration, then Roche said it was dropping all RNAi-related work. More dark skies earlier this year came when delivery firm Tekmira Pharmaceuticals brought a lawsuit against Alnylam; and RXi, undergoing a management overhaul, bought a struggling company for its late-stage breast-cancer treatment and shifted its focus away from RNAi. To top it all off, Merck & Co.'s $1.1 billion purchase in 2006 of Sirna Therapeutics, once Alnylam's rival, has yielded nothing that Merck is willing to discuss publicly. Meanwhile, Silence is offering shareholders a chance to buy up to £1 million in shares before the placement. Those who participate in full will only be diluted 45% by the placement; otherwise dilution will be about 54%, the company said in its notice to shareholders. -- Alex Lash
Bluebird Bio: When a VC at last week's Bay Bio meeting was asked about the next big thing, he pointedly said it wouldn't be RNAi, which was reminiscent of gene therapy. (He didn't mean it as a compliment.) Bluebird Bio begs to differ, having just raised a $30 million C round from new investor ARCH Venture Partners and others to pursue its gene therapy technology, called LentiPak, to treat rare diseases such as childhood cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy (CCALD) and beta-thalassemia/sickle-cell anemia. Formerly known as Genetix Pharmaceuticals, Bluebird aims to get lead program Lenti-D into a registrational Phase II/III trial for CCALD later this year. The firm says its technology, using lentiviruses instead of retroviruses as the viral vector, should provide better safety than the now-infamous gene trials of the previous decades. The LentiPak technology works this way: A patient's hematopoetic stem cells are extracted, exposed to a viral vector, then re-inserted into the patient, reconstituting his or her bone marrow. In addition to ARCH, the Series C is backed by returning investors Third Rock Ventures, TVM Capital, Forbion Capital Partners and Easton Capital Investment Group. Genzyme Ventures, which co-led last year's Series B, is not involved because of the ongoing merger with Sanofi-Aventis, Bluebird CEO Pat Leschly told "The Pink Sheet" DAILY. -- Joe Haas and A.L.
Circassia Holdings: Yes, Virginia, there are refreshing wellsprings of early-stage capital out there, and Circassia is fortunate to be in deep with one of them. The UK allergy vaccine developer said April 19 it has raised £60 million ($98 million), the second largest European venture round this year and one of the largest ever. It was led with a £15 million tranched commitment from Imperial Innovations Group, the tech transfer and investment arm of Imperial College, London, where Circassia's T-cell vaccine platform ToleroMune was developed. Imperial Innovations has exclusive rights to IP coming from the college, as well as access to technology from three other top UK schools. It recently said it has commitments from shareholders to contribute another £140 million ($220 million), nearly three times what the group has invested in start-ups. It's also one of the rare investment funds to go public itself, having raised £26 million in a 2006 listing on the AIM exchange. (Perhaps an inspiration for LSP?) Imperial has been a backer of Circassia since its founding in 2006, and the majority of the funds raised in this round will go towards financing phase III development programs for Circassia's cat and ragweed allergy therapies. Circassia also aims to use the funds to complete phase II testing of the company's house dust mite and grass allergy T-cell vaccines, and will advance the development programs for three additional allergy therapies and its psoriasis treatment, PAP-1, a selective Kv1.3 inhibitor, recently acquired from Airmid Inc. -- Faraz Kermani
Photo courtesy of flickrer Beige Alert under a Creative Commons license.
Melanie Senior contributed to this week's introduction.
*Due to an editing error a previous version of this column stated incorrectly that Synta's ganetespib compound was partnered. We regret the error.