Digital future? Sounds expensive.... and confusing! Instead, let's talk about the recent past. What stood out for us in this latest fortnight-plus – extended a bit to accommodate the Thanksgiving holiday and our expanded waistlines – were two vast sums of money for companies plying cutting-edge biomedical technologies that, despite some successes in previous permutations, are still high risk.
We’ll start with the second, because it’s a more obvious case. The company is Juno Therapeutics, which has rounded up a few programs of cancer immunotherapy under one corporate roof. None of them use the infused-antibody paradigm of Yervoy (ipilumumab), the Bristol-Myers Squibb product approved for melanoma treatment, but the much more complicated dance of autologous cell therapy that Dendreon, with its prostate cancer treatment, showed a few years ago could make it to market. Dendreon also ran into trouble, however, because the dance – removing blood from patients, isolating T-cells, shipping them to a lab, re-engineering them, shipping them back, and re-infusing them into the patient – was more than just putting your feet on the floor in the right sequence. Juno’s backers, to the tune of $120 million and, soon, a lot more (see our blurb below), think the Seattle/New York startup has all the right moves, including improvements to the process and stunning (but small sample size) Phase I data from one of its programs. (Xconomy's Luke Timmerman got the early access and the jump on everyone this week for an excellent long-take on the company.)
The other technology-driven story is the second massive cash infusion for Moderna Therapeutics, the Flagship company that wants to inject modified messenger RNA into patients to spur them to produce their own therapeutic proteins. Moderna simmered sotto vocce within Flagship for a couple years until late 2012, when it emerged with a $40 million commitment. Still years away from clinical proof of concept, it almost immediately secured a licensing deal with AstraZeneca with a $240 million upfront that gives AZ rights to cardiovascular and metabolic programs that emerge from Moderna.
Which brings us to the week before Thanksgiving, when Moderna added to the pile with a $110 million Series B round from Flagship and a raft of undisclosed backers. We’re a long ways from learning if Moderna’s ambitious idea works, but if it does, it will have to overcome a hurdle that has bedeviled many other companies – often extremely well-funded, too – using RNA-based therapeutics. Those oligos don’t hold up well in the body. Delivery is hard.
When two researchers won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for their discovery of RNA interference, the biotech world seemed well on its way to developing therapeutics based on the gene-silencing technique. Two companies in particular, Sirna Therapeutics and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, seemed poised to battle for years. Not quite. Merck & Co. bought Sirna for a cool billion dollars, and it was never heard from again. Alnylam’s rich alliances with Big Pharma came to a crashing halt at the end of last decade.
Alnylam was left to clean up the mess with a big restructuring, but it has steadily rebuilt value, and it recently scored notable Phase I data for a program based on its subcutaneous delivery technology. Its share price has rebounded and at $62.98, it’s nearly twice as high as it flew in the heady days of the ‘00s, before its pharma partners abandoned ship.
So what to make of these new blockbuster financings? Juno is building upon the rollercoaster experience of Dendreon, even hiring Dendreon's former COO as its CEO. Its investors apparently think nothing short of a full financial blitz will make autologous cell therapy 2.0 a winning version. And Moderna has enough cash now to hand-deliver every dose to every patient on a gold-embossed platinum serving tray. And to get into patients' bodies, they might be able to use a subcutaneous approach, too.
What will be the next frustrating biotechnology to spur a new round of hopeful spending? When the money flows, you'll certainly be able to read about it in....
Juno Therapeutics/Argos Therapeutics: Hello, cancer immunotherapy. The big Series A financing news this week – this year? – was Juno’s $120 million haul to help the company develop and commercialize not one, not two, but three autologous immunotherapy platforms from two rival research institutions. Autologous is like the high-profile Dendreon: T-cells are removed from the patient, genetically souped up in a lab to recognize and kill cancer cells, then re-infused into the patient. The top-line investors in Juno are ARCH Venture Partners and the Alaska Permanent Fund, which invests that state’s oil revenues. Which means Juno – perhaps a clever way to give Alaska and its capital city naming rights? – is cashing in on former Governor Sarah Palin’s successful campaign to raise taxes on oil companies. That tax hike is now the subject of a major political battle, by the way. But we digress. Alaska’s fund managers won’t have a Juno board seat, which means ARCH’s Robert Nelsen is the main money man to herd cats as Juno’s riches are disbursed to folks at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Fred Hutchinson Memorial Cancer Center, and Seattle Children's Research Institute. Nelsen tells us that the groups will continue to run their own cancer immunotherapy programs under Juno’s roof, and “may the best data win.” (The Sloan-Kettering folks are unveiling at ASH this weekend a study that brings the percentage of Phase I patients treated with MSKCC’s CART-19 immunotherapy who had a complete response to 88%, or 15 of 17: basically their cancer disappeared.) What’s more, Nelsen says a Series B round “larger than the Series A” is about six months away. We’ll have more on Juno in this week’s issue of "The Pink Sheet", and in the upcoming Start-Up magazine. Meanwhile, at the other end of the funding rainbow, Juno competitor Argos Therapeutics, which has been plugging away at autologous immunotherapy for more than a decade, also had funding news. It topped up its Series E round to $60 million as it continues a pivotal trial in renal cell carcinoma. The first tranche of the E round came in August and included warrants. Argos withdrew an IPO bid in 2012 and instead brought in a Series D round. Other than both working on autologous immunotherapy systems, Argos and Juno have another connection: Argos’ recent backers included Russian and South Korean pharma companies, which mean Juno’s investors can see Argos’ investors from their kitchen window. – Alex Lash
Xencor: Dilution was the headline for the IPO of antibody company Xencor. It priced December 3 at one-third of the mid-point of its original range, and to compensate it doubled its shares sold, and then some. It first filed to raise $75 million by selling 5 million shares at a mid-point of $15 each; it actually raised $70 million by selling 12.7 million at $5.50. That’s despite existing investors, which include MedImmune Ventures and HealthCare Ventures, committing to buy about $20.5 million, or 29%, of the IPO. Investors are demanding deep discounts as the biotech IPO market has softened this fall, so much so that it was a bit of a surprise Xencor made it out at all. Before it got the deal done, Xencor postponed its IPO, as did at least five other biotechs leading up to Thanksgiving. The Xencor offering was originally slated for Nov. 14. The worry for investors is that bankers are now scraping the bottom of the barrel. Perhaps the typical momentum of January’s JPMorgan conference can breathe a bit of life back into IPOs – if the right companies come along. (For a detailed look at the 2013 IPO strategies of OncoMed Pharmaceuticals, bluebird bio, and Ophthotech, check out this Start-Up feature.) At least for Xencor, the immediate investor upside of a deep discount is the potential for money left on the table. In its first day of trading on Dec. 3, Xencor got a 52% bounce, to $8.64 per share. Longer term, Xencor’s fate likely hangs on lead candidate XmAb5871 to treat rheumatoid arthritis, which won’t see a significant milestone until Phase Ib/IIa data due in the second half of 2014. A Phase IIb proof-of-concept trial would follow in the first half of 2015, with partner Amgen Inc. having data in hand in 2017 to determine if it will exercise its option. – Stacy Lawrence
Sitari Pharmaceuticals: The joint venture that Avalon Ventures and GlaxoSmithKline announced this spring hatched its first company November 22. The two staked Sitari, which will focus on developing a drug therapy for celiac disease based on research at Stanford University, to a $10 million Series A financing. The $10 million is not a straight cash investment, Avalon Managing Director Jay Lichter told "The Pink Sheet" DAILY. Avalon provides $3 million in cash, while GSK will provide up to $7 million in both cash and in-kind services. Using intellectual property licensed from the Stanford lab of Chaitan Khosla, Sitari will attempt to address celiac, an autoimmune digestive disease caused by intolerance to gluten, by inhibiting the transglutaminase 2 (TG2) pathway. Avalon will transfer tools from the Stanford labs to Sitari’s La Jolla, Calif., location where the GSK chemical libraries will be screened for potential TG2 inhibitors. That will be the starting point of the discovery work, along with considering compounds discovered by Khosla’s team, to determine which chemical scaffold might work best along with other pharmacodynamic factors, Lichter said. The company is years away from selection of a clinical candidate, however. At the time of selection, GSK will have the option to acquire the company or let Avalon take it forward on its own, said Pearl Huang, GSK’s global head of Discovery Partnerships with Academia (DPAC) unit. Huang said $10 million likely will be the standard A round for the companies co-founded by GSK and Avalon, based on both partners’ experience of what it takes to get to candidate selection. – Joseph Haas
5am Ventures: The San Francisco Bay Area firm said December 3 it has closed a $250 million fund, its fourth. It’s 20% larger than the group’s third fund, which closed in 2009. Four years between fund closes isn’t bad for an early-stage investor, although as managing partner Andy Schwab told Start-Up last year, “We’re realistic that not all of our companies can be two professors and an early-stage idea.” The firm has reached exits through investments in new companies that were vehicles for mature technologies, such as the Alza pain patch that was spun out and re-jiggered by Incline Therapeutics. 5am cashed out when The Medicines Co. bought Incline in 2012. It’s also had success extending a franchise. It sold Ilypsa in 2007 for $420 million to Amgen, which wanted the startup’s phosphate binder to treat chronic kidney disease. 5am and its syndicate partners spun out of Amgen some of the extra Ilypsa assets into a new company called... Relypsa. (They’re not called 5am for nothing; you’ve got to get up early to be that clever.) Amgen eventually shelved the Ilypsa program, but Relypsa made steady progress and raised north of $150 million in venture cash. It went public this fall, six years after its spin out. Relypsa also dampened its IPO ambitions, going out at $11 a share instead of $16 to $19, and raising $80 million (with insiders buying about a quarter of the shares) instead of roughly $120 million. (Shares closed at $19.60 on Dec. 5.) The new fund keeps the same managing partner lineup of Andy Schwab, Scott Rocklage, and John Diekman. – Alex Lash
Best of the Rest (Highlights of Other Financing Activity This Fortnight): Continuing its focus on drug assets, Versant Ventures will create the biotech incubator Blueline Bioscience, which will spin off start-ups to which Celgene holds an option to buy... Versant also funded the latest Inception spin-off, Inception 4, an ophthalmic company that secured a joint research and option agreement with Bayer...Visterra added $8.1M to its Series A, which now totals $34.2M, and concurrently in-licensed dengue fever IP from MIT…Despite losing GSK as its Fabry disease partner, Amicus Therapeutics was busy: the company restructured its financial and corporate structure, announced $40M in new equity and debt financing, and acquired a lead ERT for Pompe disease in its takeover of Callidus Biopharma…Horizon Pharma netted $144M in a private senior notes sale, $35M of which will fund the purchase of exclusive US rights to AstraZeneca’s pain drug Vimovo…and Gilde Healthcare closed a $200M third fund dedicated to home- and digital-health, diagnostics and medtech, and pharmaceuticals. -- Amanda Micklus