When the Nasdaq’s biotech index topped 1,600 late last week, many people noted it was an all-time high, even higher than the 2000 bubble. (Not adjusting for inflation, however.)
It has stayed above 1,600 all week, and no surprise, the money-chasers have followed. As of this writing, two biotechs have gone public the past few days, and the waiting room is starting to fill up. Companies recently joining the queue include Omthera Pharmaceuticals, Chimerix, and GW Pharmaceuticals.
Meanwhile, a new study shows that seven of the top 50 cash-rich US corporations are drug companies: Pfizer, Amgen, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Abbott Laboratories, Eli Lilly and Bristol-Myers Squibb. (Abbott has since split into device and drug companies, but the drug spin-out AbbVie has enough cash to qualify for the list.)
Much of that cash is held overseas, and it’ll likely stay there. Cash earned abroad and brought back to the US carries a 35% tax rate. Drug firms and other corporate lobbyists convinced the US government to grant a tax holiday – a temporary 5% rate -- in the mid-2000s in large part on the grounds that all that cash coming home would create jobs. The Congress said – nudge, nudge, wink, wink – well, sure, who doesn’t love jobs? Instead, we saw massive cuts in the drug business. The legislation was called the “American Jobs Creation Act,” a title so patently false it still serves as a convenient reminder to arch an eyebrow or three whenever the drug industry launches cries of duress. With apologies to Mark Twain, the demise of Big Pharma is always greatly exaggerated, often by the industry itself.
Even if much of the cash underscored in the Moody’s report is “locked” overseas, cash is plentiful at home, too, for certain sectors of the life sciences world. Debt is dirt cheap, and the stock market is booming. When a Big Pharma decides to divest a non-core asset, rewards await. Bristol-Myers Squibb did just fine spinning out its Mead Johnson nutritionals group in early 2009 and divesting its 83% stake before the end of that year. Earlier this year Pfizer floated its animal health division as the public company Zoetis but retained an iron grip on ownership and board control; its stake has gone up 29% in less than two months.
Farther down the food chain, public investors were choosy about which biotechs got through the IPO looking glass in 2012, but those that squeezed through have fared extremely well. At the closing bell March 20, the class of 2012 (biopharma and diagnostics companies, IPOs on US exchanges only) is up 57% as a portfolio, 13 companies in all. Only three are in the red; one, coincidentally, is Verastem, a cancer stem-cell company brought to you by some the same people who cofounded OvaScience, which just raised $35 million in a private placement after going public last year via a different route than Verastem (see more below).
Below the IPO threshold, amongst the private biotechs, it’s hard to argue that there’s plenty of cash from the traditional source of early-stage venture capital. But then something like Savara Pharmaceuticals comes along; as we note below in our roundup, the Austin, Texas company working on powdered drug delivery has now raised $19 million, mainly from angels, through its Series B round. We did a double-take, too, when we saw that number. When angel networks can pony up those kinds of sums, are reports that bemoan the funding struggles of early-stage biotech greatly exaggerated?
And while you’re mulling that over, answer this, too: Was the coldest winter you ever spent really a summer in San Francisco? Mark Twain was always good for an aphorism, but when it came to the biotech money scene, he could never match…
Savara Pharmaceuticals: The Austin, Texas developer said March 20 it has landed a $7.4 million second tranche of its Series B round, bringing the total to $16 million. New investors include Tech Coast Angels and North Texas Angel Network, and Central Texas Angel Network is a returning investor. The B round began with angels, too: The Keiretsu Forum, the largest angel “community” in the world, led the first tranche of $3.2 million in the round with participation from 117 investors. To add to the juiced-up B round, the firm also has brought in non-dilutive funding – a three-year, $4 million grant from NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Initially founded in 2007 on a plan to build an out-licensing business centered on the NanoCluster dry powder aerosol delivery platform in-licensed from the University of Kansas, Savara changed directions along the way to focus on developing its own drug-delivery solutions for pulmonary conditions. It raised a $1.4 million Series A mainly from angels in 2009. The new cash will help fund a Phase II trial for AeroVanc, Savara’s dry-powder inhalation formulation of vancomycin intended to treat MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infections in cystic fibrosis patients. AeroVanc, which includes a capsule inhalation device in-licensed by Savara, has been granted orphan drug designation by FDA, meaning it will have seven years of market exclusivity if approved. – Joseph Haas
OvaScience: The infertility treatment company announced March 13 a private placement of its over-the-counter shares that raised $35 million. The firm, which went public in 2012 without an initial public offering, sold 3.9 million shares at $9 each to Adage Capital Management, Deerfield Management Company, EcoR1 Capital Fund, Jennison Associates and other institutional investors. Leerink Swann served as placement agent. We highlighted OvaScience in a column last year
for a few reasons: It has high-profile founders, it went public via an odd route that has gained some attention recently, and among its dozens and dozens of individual investors were several standout names. Also, it gave us the chance to crack a few egg puns. OvaScience is one of several companies recently to attract to their private fundraising crossover investors who normally stay in the public realm. (OvaScience had hedge fund RA Capital in its Series B round in early 2012.) The firm's lead product AUGMENT is a process to revitalize a woman’s mitochondria in her eggs, improve their viability, and boost the chances of success during in-vitro fertilization. -- Alex Lash
Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals: The antibiotic maker became the fifth health care company and the third biopharma (for humans, that is) to go public in 2013. It raised $75 million on March 20 by selling 10.7 million shares at $7 each, which missed the revised target range of $8 - $10. Tetraphase first filed in February and is the first biotech to jump to the public markets since the national biotech indices hit record highs in March. If it hadn’t gone public, Tetraphase likely would have raised another round of venture funding, a choice another antibiotic developer Rib-X Pharmaceuticals made in 2012. With $80 million raised in three previous rounds, Tetraphase needs cash to begin Phase III studies of its lead candidate eravacycline – a synthetic next-generation tetracycline – for multi-drug resistant Gram negative infections including intra-abdominal infections. It should benefit from a more favorable regulatory climate, including new draft guidance from FDA that allows sponsors to run two Phase III studies in different patient populations, one in patients with intra-abdominal infections and the other in patients with complicated urinary tract infections. Previously sponsors would have been required to conduct two Phase III studies, enrolling 500 to 600 patients each, in intra-abdominal infections. The new guidance gives sponsors an opportunity to go after two indications at the same time, and the different patient populations could make the trials faster to enroll. – Jessica Merrill and Alex Lash
Pharmacyclics: The small-molecule oncology company said March 8 it raised $207 million in a secondary share offering. Like Tetraphase, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Pharmacyclics is striking quickly in the wake of good regulatory news. In February, the FDA granted its ibrutinib, partnered with Johnson & Johnson, breakthrough status in two blood cancers. Pharmacyclics sold 2.2 million shares, about 3% of outstanding shares, at $94.20 each, capping for now a remarkable run that saw the firm’s share price nearly quadruple in 12 months. It closed March 8, 2012 at $25.40. Most of that rise came before the FDA’s breakthrough designation for ibrutinib, the first for an oncology drug. FDA’s Office of New Drugs Director John Jenkins has described as reserved for drugs with early results that are “so impressive, so unexpected and ha[ve] such a dramatic impact on the treatment of patients with that disease” that the sponsors and drug regulators should do all they can to move it forward. One of the few clear criteria for breakthrough status is that there is early clinical evidence of substantial improvement over existing therapy. FDA granted breakthrough designation to ibrutinib for two B-cell malignancies: relapsed/refractory mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), for which there are an estimated 5,000 new cases in the U.S. per year, and Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia (WM), an even rarer disease with about 1,500 cases in the U.S. per year. Ibrutinib is a Bruton’s tyrosine kinase inhibitor. J&J’s Janssen Biotech licensed rights to the drug in December 2011 in a deal that included a $150 million upfront payment, the largest paid for a single asset that year. Vertex Pharmaceuticals' Kalydeco (ivacaftor) was the first drug to receive breakthrough designation. - Alex Lash and Emily Hayes
All The Rest: With participation from Celgene and Novo AS, PTC Therapeutics (small-molecule therapies) snagged $60 million in its Series G round, the largest venture financing of the fortnight… Research-focused Nabsys brought in $20mm through a Series D financing… UK regenerative medicine company Progenitor Labs received $5.8 million in seed funding from SR One’s UK Fund… KannaLife Sciences, a start-up developing phyto-medical pharmacological products derived from botanical sources rolled up $1.5 million in a Series A investment from Medical Marijuana and CannaVest…To commercialize its biopharmaceutical affinity purification technology, Avitide completed a $1.4 million Series A round led by Borealis Ventures, and joined by SV Life Sciences, Polaris Venture Partners, OrbiMed Advisors, and Angeli Parvi… In a private placement by public Australian stem cell developer Mesoblast, the company issued new shares priced at AU$6.30, for $174.6mm in proceeds to fund a clinical trial program… Public Evolva Holding SA (small molecules), through a rights offering and subsequent private placement, took in $33 million... In a PIPE of 113mm common shares @ $0.145 to lead investors Opko Health and Frost Gamma Investments Trust, RXi Pharmaceuticals (RNAi therapies) grossed $16.4 million… Renal-focused Rockwell Medical plans to sell 4.3 million shares at $3 in a registered direct offering for net proceeds of about $12 million… Public Canadian spec pharma Cynapsus (CNS drug delivery) completed a 13. 1 million unit placement, taking in $5.6 million…The $3.1 million in proceeds from Stem Cell Therapeutics’ PIPE will allow the company to conclude its acquisition of Trillium Therapeutics (announced in February) and also triggers a condition of a December 2012 deal that enables SCT to exercise its option for an exclusive license to University Health Network/MaRS Innovation's tigecycline, an FDA-approved antibiotic capable of selectively targeting leukemia cells… Hyperion Therapeutics (urea cycle disorders) netted $65.4 million in a FOPO of 3.3 million shares @ $20.75 – including the overallotment…Women’s health care-focused TherapeuticsMD reaped $50 million through a public offering of 29 million common shares at $1.70… Inovio Pharma (cancer and infectious disease therapeutics) netted $14.2 million through the follow-on public offering of 27.4 million units, priced at $0.55 each…Oculus Innovative Sciences (dermatology and wound care) netted $3.2 million in a public offering of 8.6 million shares, including the overallotment, priced at $0.40…Infectious disease-focused Enanta Pharmaceuticals priced its IPO of 4 million shares at $14, the low end of its $14-16 range… Israeli biotech Alocobra set terms for its Nasdaq IPO at $10-12 for 1.4mm shares… Animal health company Aranata Therapeutics also announced plans to go public…Chinese drug distributor Sinopharm Group plans to issue $640mm worth of five-year corporate bonds on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. -- Maureen Riordan
Big thanks to Stacy Lawrence for help with this fortnight's column.