Friday, November 30, 2012

There's A Financings of the Fortnight In Every Crowd

"Psst, wanna buy some biotech?"
It’s already helped rock singers and indie film makers and arapaima trackers. But can crowdfunding help fill the life sciences venture gap?

The JOBS Act of 2012, signed into law by President Obama in April, aims to let small private companies raise money and go public more easily. Part of the law deals with the brave new world of equity crowdfunding, or selling private shares to the grass roots. Many of the details have yet to emerge from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is charged with writing the new rules, including those that regulate crowdfunding. That means US entrepreneurs eager to use the model for the time being have to give something other than equity as remuneration for their backers’ cash. On the science-focused site, you can search for projects based on the awards they’re using as compensation. (Get back to us when someone offers hats.)

Another example a bit closer to our hearts – or more accurately, our guts – are two citizen-science projects on the crowdfunding site IndieGoGo that ask the unwashed masses to submit body swab  samples and help build massive microbiome databases. (The more unwashed the masses, the better!) Both of the projects, American Gut and uBiome, have a sliding donation scale, but for less than $100, contributors will receive a kit to swab their various regions and, er, effluences, and submit them for analysis. Once processed the personal microbial profiles are made available back to the contributors. (Hey, a hat would be nice, too.) We’ve reported on the caution VCs have shown so far toward the wealth of microbiome data emerging from this new field, so we’re eager to see if projects like these, if and once they meet their crowdfunding goals, draw interest from more traditional investors. 

Despite the temporary regulatory limbo, plans are afoot in the US to create crowdfunding platforms that let start-ups sell equity. (We’ll dig into one of those plans in the next Capital Matters column of START-UP.) Elsewhere, the model is already underway. As we noted in this column in October, the French crowdfunding site shepherded grassroots investors to what it says is the first-ever equity crowdfunding exit – through a biotech firm, no less. French antibiotic developer Antabio raised €300,000 from 207 crowdfunders in late 2010. The firm pulled in a Series B round from an angel investor a year later, and in mid-2012, the same angel offered to buy out the crowdfunders’ shares. It’s not clear what kind of return they received. An Antabio spokeswoman told the IN VIVO Blog in October it was a 2x return, but Wiseed’s own material calls it a 44% return. And the co-editor of this site says he invested €1400 and received €2434, a 73% return. (When we get clarification, we'll pass it along.)

Back in Washington, the SEC recently held a small-business meeting and took public comment on what its JOBS-related rules should look like. Some of the key crowdfunding questions remain up in the air, such as: Should equity crowdfunding services be regulated lightly, like the arts-donation site Kickstarter, or treated like broker-dealers? With serious questions like that still unresolved, we probably won't know anytime soon whether crowdfunding can become a real piece of the life science funding puzzle. But you can still find all the other puzzle pieces every two weeks by opening the rectangular cardboard box marked…

BioTime: The San Francisco Bay Area stem cell company said November 15 it has secured $10 million from an unnamed private investor to help pay for its proposed acquisition of assets from stem-cell pioneer Geron. Those assets have been in limbo for a year after Geron said abruptly in November 2011 it would end its stem-cell R&D to focus on small molecule cancer treatments. Geron’s spinal-cord injury treatment, derived from embryonic stem cells, was the first of its kind to enter the clinic, the most advanced example of cutting-edge stem-cell technology that has, to date, been slow to attract backers beyond California’s publicly funded regenerative medicine agency. Led by a Geron cofounder and its former CEO, BioTime in October made a public offer for Geron’s stem-cell assets. On November 15, concurrent with the financing announcement, BioTime published a non-binding letter of intent with Geron. If consummated under the terms outlined in the letter, the deal would create a new company to house the Geron assets, with Geron shareholders receiving more than 21% of the common stock and warrants to buy 8 million common shares of BioTime itself. The unnamed financier would put $5 million into the new company in exchange for 7% of the common stock and three-year warrants for roughly 350,000 shares at an exercise price of $5 per share. In addition, BioTime would contribute to the new company $5 million in cash, $30 million in BioTime common shares, warrants, and other rights. The anonymous investor’s other $5 million would go to the parent BioTime to buy 1.35 million common shares at about $3.70 per share, plus three-year warrants to purchase 650,000 shares with an exercise price of $5 per share. – Alex Lash

Lanthio Pharma: New European biotech start-ups have been few and far between this year. Tapping an unusual syndicate, however, the new Dutch firm Lanthio said November 27 it has raised a €4.8 million Series A round to push a lead compound from its peptide discovery platform into clinical trials, likely to treat lung fibrosis. The round was led by seed investor BioGeneration Ventures, which specializes in Dutch start-ups. But the surprising part of the funding news is that 20-year-old German antibody firm (and first-time investor) MorphoSys also took part. It will take a minority stake in Lanthio, and it will also become an R&D partner, receiving what the companies called “preferred rights to exclusively license” Lanthio’s technology for drug discovery. No financial details were disclosed. Spun out of the University of Groningen in 2011, Lanthio’s platform produces peptides that are stable in circulation and act as receptor agonists – relatively rare, as most peptide technologies find it easier to produce receptor antagonists. Other investors included INKEF Capital and Hanzepoort. INKEF Capital is an investment vehicle for the largest pension fund in the Netherlands, Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP. The round remains open for one more investor, Lanthio CEO Bart Wuurman told our colleagues at “The Pink Sheet” DAILY this week. "The number of European life science VCs with money to invest in new companies can be counted on one, maybe two, hands, as they appear to be keeping back financing for their existing investments," Wuurman said. – John Davis

Applied Genetics Technology: As we noted in September’s issue of START-UP, some VCs have taken a shine to gene therapy companies lately. Once considered far too risky for investors, the field has seen an unlikely renaissance recently, thanks to improved clinical data sets, improvements in manufacturing, and even a drug approval that could be a bellwether. On Nov. 19, the latest investment in the sector went to Gainesville, Fla.-based Applied Genetics Technology Corp., which reaped $37.5 million in a new Series B round. Leader Alta Partners was joined by first-time backer and GSK affiliate SR One as well as academic spinout specialist Osage University Partners. Returning investors from AGTC’s $11.8 million Series A round in 2009 included InterWest, Intersouth Partners and MedImmune Ventures. AGTC will use the funds for a Phase II trial on a therapy for alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a protein disorder that leads to loss of lung function and liver damage, as well as early-stage treatments for the rare eye disorders achromatopsia and X-linked rentinoschisis. AGTC uses adeno-associated virus vectors to insert DNA into cells in order to correct genetic disorders. In early November, Belgian gene therapy company uniQure received European approval for Glybera (alipogene tiparvovec) to treat a rare protein deficiency, making it the world’s first gene therapy to gain regulatory approval. – Paul Bonanos

TauRx Pharmaceuticals: Just when you thought late-stage Alzheimer’s trials were done for a while, the Singapore-Scotland hybrid TauRx said November 20 it has received the first tranche of a $112 million equity investment to help push its lead candidate into Phase III. The money comes from a sole investor, Genting Management, a subsidiary of the Malaysian conglomerate Genting Berhad. The full investment is due by year’s end, according to TauRx, and gives Genting a 20% stake in TauRx. It brings the company’s total equity raised to nearly $300 million since its 2002 inception. The company says those Phase III trials have already begun enrolling. They will total more than 1500 patients around the world to confirm disease-modifying effects that a Phase II trial of an earlier version of the drug showed in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s patients, says the company. The firm’s treatment, dubbed LMTX, is aimed at dissolving the tangles of tau protein implicated in the decline of cognitive function of Alzheimer’s. The leading theory of the past decade or so -- that clearing accumulation of beta amyloid, another protein in the brain, would ameliorate the disease -- has encountered major setbacks in recent years, most notably the Phase III trial data released this year for the drugs bapineuzumab and solanezumab. Those disappointments have helped boost a cautious resurgence of work on other pathways such as tau that might lead to an Alzheimer’s treatment. They have also pushed researchers to theorize that beta-amyloid accumulation is a symptom of Alzheimer’s, and once present too late to respond to treatment. – A.L.

The Best of the Rest: To support lead candidate delafloxacin in Phase III for acute bacterial skin and skin structure infections, Rib-X Pharmaceuticals completed the first tranche of a $67.5 million Series 2 preferred share financing… led by Lilly Asia Fund, Chinese mAb developer Innovent Biologics  brought in $25 million in Series B funding… in a Series F to advance EPI743 in Phase IIb for two orphan indications, Edison Pharmaceuticals raised $20 million… French immunotherapeutics company TxCell cleared $15 million in a Series C round… Life Sciences Partners led a $12.8 million late-stage round for blood cancer drug maker Kiadis PharmaNanoBio’s $11 million Series C will support development of infectious disease candidates and nanoemulsion-based vaccines… With $8 million from Pfizer Venture, Rhythm Pharmaceuticals expanded its June 2012 Series B to $33 million… MabVax Therapeutics raised $5.25 million in a Series B…an at-market RDO of Series A convertible preferred stock brought in $40 million for spec pharma BioDelivery Sciences to support completion of Phase III for chronic pain candidate buprenorphine… In an amended S-1 filing, Audeo Oncology set a range of $14-16 for 3.25 million shares in its planned IPO… A private placement of convertible debentures brought in $12.7 million for OTC-traded cancer therapeutics developer Arno Therapeutics… Concurrent with in-licensing of Genentech’s Phase I IAP inhibitor GDC0917, Curis secured $30 million in debt financing from Pharmakon in exchange for certain future Erivedge royalties. -- Maureen Riordan

Photo courtesy of flickr user James Cridland, whose photo stream is crowded with cool pictures.

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