Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bayer/Direvo: Platforms Trump When It Comes to Exits

Yesterday, Bayer HealthCare announced its intent to spend €210 million to acquire Direvo Biotech, a privately held start-up with a promising next-generation protein-engineering platform.

Bayer is the latest in a string of pharmas to bolster its large molecule capabilities via the acquisition route. Other privately held companies with novel technology platforms snapped up by Big Pharma in recent years include GlycArt (Roche), GlycoFi (Merck), Domantis (GlaxoSmithKline), Adnexus (Bristol-Myers Squibb), Agensys (Astellas), Morphotek (Eisai), and CovX (Pfizer). (Are you beginning to see a trend here?)

START-UP recently undertook a comprehensive review of private biotech M&A, analyzing 184 deals that took place from January 1, 2005 to August 31, 2008 to identify possible trends, including age at acquisition, as well as the clinical status and therapeutic focus of a start-up's most advanced program. (You can read the whole article here.) Interestingly, fewer than half of the acquisitions reviewed resulted in a reliable exit for investors, and those numbers appear to be trending downward.

But if M&A has become not so much an exit opportunity as a chance to revamp one's business card, there's one group that has continued to hold value in the eyes of acquirers: the platform biotechs, especially those capable of generating multiple therapeutic products of the large molecule variety. In all, 56% of the private companies acquired during the 2005-2008 time period were platform-based. And of those companies that made healthy exits, nearly 60% were platforms. (See chart above--click to enlarge.)

And that's been very good news for the private investors who've ponied up the cash for these start-ups. For instance, HBM Bioventures, Atlas Venture, Polaris Ventures, Flagship Ventures, and Venrock poured $54.5 million into Adnexus from 2002 until its acquisition by BMS in 2007. But they netted an almost 8-fold return in the process. (And if the company realizes certain developmental milestones, earn-outs could drive the return up nearly 10-fold.) Meanwhile, CoGenesys's backers, which include New Enterprise Associates and OrbiMed Advisors, invested $55 million into the Human Genome Science's spin-out and earned a 7.3x return on their investment when Teva purchased the company earlier this year.

Direvo, too, netted quite a nice return for its backers, which include TVM Ventures, Danisco Ventures AS, S-Equity Partner, and Mulligan BioCapital. (A full list is here.) The company, which spun off from Evotec, has raised more than €30 million over three private rounds since its 2000 founding; by our calculations that's an ROI of 7x.

One reason the return for TVM and others was so high: the sale of Direvo was apparently a competitive process. "There were several parties in the race," Direvo President and CEO Dr. Thomas von Rüden told the IN VIVO Blog.

Late in 2007 and early in 2008, Direvo also inked research agreements with both Pfizer and MedImmune. Financial terms of those deals weren't disclosed--and probably didn't generate a tremendous amount of money for Direvo. But it's clear those deals served their purpose, helping validate the technology in the marketplace. "It put us on the landscape," admits von Rüden.

Certainly Bayer, which has been somewhat late to the biologics party, didn't have the capabilities Direvo was offering. "We can optimize antibodies, proteases, other proteins, and do glyco-engineering. Nobody else offers all this together," notes von Rüden, who will be staying on until year's end to aid the start-up's integration into Bayer Schering.

It's true the pace of acquisitions of these monoclonal- or protein-centric outfits has slowed somewhat. Direvo is only the second such company to be acquired in 2008; back in May, Daiichi-Sankyo purchased another German stand-out, U3 Pharma AG, for €150 million. Still, Big Pharma's desperation to quickly add biologics expertise means we're likely to see out-sized returns for platform start-ups of this type.

And despite a worsening M&A climate, that's definitely good news for the VC community.

image from flickr user bk-robat used under a creative commons license

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