Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Adimab Banks on the Value of Discovery

Adimab, the yeast-based antibody discovery play we wrote about here, and here, will announce its first two alliances today: a multi-target therapeutic deal with Merck & Co. and a single-target therapeutic/diagnostic deal with Roche.

There aren't many details in today's press release, but that's OK: these are very early stage deals anyway. What's more interesting to us is Adimab's overall partnership strategy, and its co-founder and CEO Tillman Gerngross' staunch belief that a focus on discovery--and not taking a single step down the development pathway--will allow the company to capture significant value.

(For our readers familiar with the revolting flavor of spreadable yeast extracts, apparently drug development is a lot like Marmite: either you love it or you hate it. )

First the new deals. For Merck, Adimab will use its discovery platform to identify fully human antibodies against a number of targets selected by Merck. We know that number is greater than one, but that's about it. Merck has rights to develop and commercialize those antibodies as therapeutics. Roche has tasked Adimab with discovering antibodies against a single target, and has the right to develop and commercialize those antibodies as therapeutic or diagnostic products.

Importantly there is absolutely no exclusivity around any of the targets, Gerngross tells us; Adimab can do deals with other companies on the same targets if it chooses. For its labor Adimab gets undisclosed up-front payments, pre-clinical and clinical milestone payments, and eventually commercial milestones and royalties. Though we should note that the two deals aren't necessarily structured in the same way: as Gerngross told us in May at BIO, Adimab is flexible with regards to upfronts versus royalties and terms in between. "Just pay us," he said. The biotech is also open, in some cases, to its partners taking an equity stake (though again, there is no clarity as to whether Merck or Roche has done so).

See here for an overview of Adimab's technology; essentially the company says it has created a faster and more fully human antibody discovery technology unencumbered by the various IP cross-licenses prevalent in existing platforms like phage display. Once Adimab has been given an antigen it typically takes eight weeks to deliver about a hundred antibodies that bind that target.

So Adimab will rake in cash from its discovery deals, which it plans to announce more of in the coming months (Gerngross tells us the biotech is essentially cash-flow positive, with minimal burn and no plans to raise additional capital), and build its business: keep expanding the library, do more deals. But here's where the company parts ways with about 99% of discovery-focused biotechs. It has no plans to build a pipeline of its own. At least not directly.

Adimab will not do development work. "I think that's where many other companies have made mistakes," says Gerngross. Often they're forced down the development route to validate their own technology for partners, he says. If a biotech is promoting a technology platform that isn't well-validated, "what ends up happening is that people will say 'the science sounds great, but show me that this really works,'" he says. "And before you know it you're in the business of conducting preclinical development with a company that was originally put together to solve a scientific problem. And it creates tension and requires resources that are very significant."

Gerngross contends this isn't a problem for Adimab. "Who will argue that fully human antibodies aren't a validated modality? Having strategic access to antibody discovery is a must, it's not an option" for pharmaceutical companies that are near-uniformly saying that 20 or 25% of their pipelines will come from biologics, he says.

So the challenge is to monetize the discovery capabilities within Adimab. If you're going to eschew the development pathway the problem becomes getting sufficient value for the company's investors with a series of discovery alliances. Adimab has raised cash in three venture rounds from SV Life Sciences, Polaris Venture Partners, Orbimed Advisors, and Borealis Ventures.

The simplest way would be to whet the appetites of a few pharmas and wait for one of them to pounce. Cue bidding war and a GlycoFi-esque takeout valuation. VCs invested a total of about $35 million since 2000 in that company, Gerngross' previous effort, which Merck bought in 2006 for $400 million.

But "we're not building Adimab to be acquired," insists Gerngross. "We think we can build a cash-flow positive company that can generate an enormous amount of value," he says (though there's always an offer that's too good to refuse).

And to be sure there are other ways of monetizing discovery. Gerngross points to some of the deals signed by Regeneron (like this one) as an example. "Very big upfronts, five-year commitments, royalties ... if you can do a number of those it's more attractive than a single acquisition," he points out. To which we'd add: particularly if you aren't ploughing the cash into pipeline development and can find a way to return it to your shareholders in a tax-efficient manner.

So Adimab will continue to sign the kind of funded research programs it has just announced with Roche and Merck, with an eye toward more strategic discovery deals that give large companies direct access to Adimab's platform, says Gerngross. "We can transfer the capabilities to them," he says, for them to use the discovery platform non-exclusively across a pre-determined swathe of targets or programs, unlimited targets, unlimited programs, whatever. It'll depend on the price. These sorts of non-exclusive arrangements sound like the kinds of deals Alnylam has managed to sign with the likes of Roche.

And then there's another wrinkle, a third kind of deal in the works at Adimab outside its Big Pharma discovery services ambitions. "We see opportunities for smaller, more agile players that really understand the valuable targets in, say, oncology," says Gerngross. Put that expertise together with Adimab's antibody platform, he says, "and we're looking at a story that's very compelling."

Adimab has identified oncology, inflammation, and infectious disease as three areas to embark on these sorts of ventures, and is already in active discussions in two of those therapeutic spaces. How such a deal would be structured remains to be seen but Gerngross envisions an autonomous entity in which Adimab and the other party would have equity stakes and which would be able to raise its own development capital.

These ventures will keep Adimab a step removed from drug development, where it won't have to compromise its platform business. The only question is what potential partners and investors would be willing to pay for that discovery platform: do they value discovery as much as Adimab?

image from flickr user jonben used under a creative commons license.

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