Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 M&A of the Year Nominee: The Ibrutinib Royalty

It's time for the IN VIVO Blog's Sixth Annual Deal of the Year! competition. This year we're once again presenting awards in three categories to highlight the most interesting and creative deal making solutions of the year. The categories are: M&A of the Year, Alliance of the Year, and Financing of the Year. We'll supply the nominations (about a half dozen in each category throughout over the next week or so) and you, the voting public, will decide the winners (by voting early and often, commencing once we've announced all the nominees). Strap yourselves in, it's The Race for the Roger™.

Royalty deals have long been the provenance of more conservative private-equity vehicles. Then came... The Ibrutinib Royalty, soon to be a major motion picture starring Matt Damon.

But seriously, it was odd not just to see two venture firms join the royalty deal but also to hear how much each was putting up. Aisling Capital and Clarus Ventures said in August they had paid $48.5 million for a tiny slice of sales royalties from ibrutinib, a cancer drug that hadn't been approved yet.

It's approved now; the FDA granted accelerated approval for mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) to its sponsor Pharmacyclics in November, and it goes by the name Imbruvica. (The Imbruvica Approval, starring Daniel Craig as Richard Pazdur!)

Please, would you pay attention, 007: The PDUFA date for a much larger indication, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, comes in late February 2014. Ibrutinib could be a best-seller. If it isn't, Aisling and Clarus will have trouble recouping their cash. Certainly it’s a less risky investment than they and their brethren are accustomed to. But even if ibrutinib can garner multi-billion dollar sales at its peak, will it bring venture-like returns to Clarus and Aisling?

Here’s some math: in an interview in “The Pink Sheet” DAILY, Royalty Pharma officials pegged the royalty stream in the mid-single digits as a percentage of total ibrutinib sales. We don’t know the exact number, so let’s call it 5%. Clarus and Aisling have each bought 10% of that stream; let’s call it 0.5% of total sales apiece. Under that scenario, it will require nearly $10 billion in ibrutinib sales for each firm to recapture its investment; more than $19 billion to double it, and $29 billion to capture a “venture-like” 3x return.

Even by optimistic projections – this summer, Barclays Capital estimated peak annual sales between $2 billion and $3.6 billion, while others have gone higher – it will take ibrutinib years to reach those figures. Venture firms like Aisling and Clarus investing from the tail ends of their funds need extremely patient limited partners to wait years, but the ibrutinib scenario could play out – and pay out – in two different ways.

First, the VCs will have a steady stream of returns to pass through to LPs as soon as sales begin. Such near-term returns, however incremental, would be far less likely if the VCs had spread the $50 million among a few earlier-stage biotech companies or other investments.

Second, now that ibrutinib is approved, the value of the royalty stream will probably jump. Other investors, including other royalty funds, don’t take pre-commercial risks the way Aisling, Clarus, and Royalty Pharma, the lead investor in the deal, did. With those risks all but eliminated, perhaps Clarus and Aisling could flip their royalty rights to new buyers. Aisling’s Dennis Purcell and Clarus’ Nick Simon acknowledged as much earlier this year, before the drug's approval.

The firms joined Royalty Pharma, the 800-pound gorilla of royalty funds, to buy the ibrutinib royalty rights from Quest Diagnostics for $485 million, a deal first announced in mid-July without disclosure of the VCs’ names or financial details.  (Quest obtained the rights in 2011 when it bought Celera Corp. for its diagnostics business.)

Royalty funds – firms that pay up-front cash to scientists, institutions, biotechs, and pharmas for royalty rights that they collect over time – don’t typically risk regulatory failure on top of commercial uncertainty. But Royalty Pharma has been more creative of late, even making an acquisition play for Elan Corp PLC that was ultimately unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Clarus and Aisling have looked for deals that emphasize shorter timelines to potential returns as they invest from the tail ends of their current funds. In July, an Aisling-backed start-up, Loxo Oncology, in-licensed an undisclosed preclinical oncology candidate from Array BioPharma, with trials to start in 2014.  Clarus has invested in a series of clinical development companies – mini-CROs, of a type – that run late-stage trials of drugs owned by Pfizer and other big drugmakers, with milestone and royalty payments on offer if the drugs succeed.

It’s all part of a scramble within life sciences venture to woo back limited partners turned off by poor returns the past decade. The 2013 IPO boom might help bolster venture returns, but with the fickle window, life science VCs aren’t likely to abandon the pursuit of deals that shorten the time to exit and shore up lower risk, lower reward returns.

flickr image courtesy Deb Roby, creative commons

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