Tag Archives: CBT Advisors

Health IT: Will Europe catch the wave?

By Steve Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors

The US health IT space is white hot. Europe lags far behind both in the number of companies and in the amount of money being invested. There have been very few (no?) exits. I was wondering if Europe will ever catch up and which companies and geographies are emerging winners. So I decided to survey a half-dozen Europe-based VC partners active in healthcare investing some of whom have taken their first tentative steps into health IT investing. Here’s what I found out.

But first the impressive US benchmarks: HealthITNews reported in mid-July that VC investment into health IT surpassed $1.8 billion just in the second quarter of 2014, double the amount that had been raised in the previous quarter. Investors have cashed in on exits from companies such as Castlight Health (NASDAQ IPO in 2014); Humedica (acquired by United Health for a reported several hundred million dollars in 2013); and Healthy Circles (acquired by Qualcomm Life in 2013 for an undisclosed amount).

This makes sense given the obvious drivers for health IT activity in the United States: the mandated shift to electronic medical records (EMRs); consumer interest in web and especially mobile health apps; the boom in analytics in all areas including health; and especially the multi-payer system, one that heavily involves employers. Castlight would not even exist without the employer aspect. Rock Health reported in its excellent midyear funding report published in late June that startups developing payer administration tools took in more VC money (over $200 million in the first half of 2014) than any other subsector within health IT.

A Europe of borders

Meanwhile, as much as Europe has dismantled many of the internal impediments to the single market (local currencies, border crossings), there are many barriers to developing solutions to Europe-wide healthcare challenges. These include:

  • Language barriers. Start a web site for a consumer-facing business and you will see your user base fracture unless you can communicate in at least three (or four!) languages.
  • Scaling challenges. Try to remedy the challenges inherent in the healthcare system and you will soon realize that there has been virtually no harmonization yet. Single payer systems are fine as long as you stay within them. If you try to work cross-border, then look out! As Antoine Papiernik, a managing partner at Sofinnova Partners in Paris put it, “Our European system is also messed up, but in a different way than in the US. It is the fact that [EU healthcare systems] are completely state controlled and operated that makes it difficult for a Health-IT play to get to scale as well as it could in the US.”
  • Missing incentives. When it comes to reducing inefficiencies and shifting responsibility and benefit to the consumer, the US healthcare system is a target rich environment. Similar incentives are hard to find in Europe, especially across borders. Consumers are less incentivized when they get cradle to grave healthcare financed by payments much lower than those in typical US health plans. Therefore, said Anne Portwich, a partner at LSP in the Netherlands, it is hard to imagine a consumer-focused company gaining VC financing in Europe, at least before it has huge traction (some promising examples will come up later). This is because “Something the consumer has to pay for him or herself, even 1 Euro per month, that is a completely different [and more challenging] dynamic and a different business model than what we are familiar with.”
  • Big data not yet “in.” Finally, a less obvious example. The larger business environment in the States has been largely penetrated by the type of thinking that favors “big data” and “analytics” as solutions to real problems. This way of thinking is years away in Europe, said Simon Meier, investment director at Roche Venture in Basel, Switzerland. Meier went part-time for a year in 2013 to work with a startup in big data and advertising so he observed this firsthand. Even sectors ripe for analytics such as retail and advertising have not yet been overhauled in Europe, he says. Therefore, Meier said, “our data scientists are still occupied in resolving issues or setting up infrastructure in areas from which US scientists have already moved on. There are plenty of markets in the European Union that have not even started thinking about data science. Compared to the US, applying data science to healthcare in Europe is going from a simple sailor knot to a Gordian knot.”

For all of these reasons, successful early-stage European health IT companies (see inset below) seem to be primarily single-country focused for now. Sometimes that leads to companies in different countries occupying similar niches, such as helping consumers improve sleep. Consumer-focused sleep-aiders we found include sleepio in the UK and iSommeil in France. Either app could be used in any country. Sleepio, which offers online sleep therapy, even prices its services in US dollars, so perhaps these apps’ reach is very broad. However, iSommeil’s sample language is all in French so I suspect that a majority of their readers are in French-speaking countries. Its app is available in the US iPhone app store but there are no reviews.

The bulk of Euro health IT activity that we turned up is in the UK, where a couple of active VCs (SEP, Albion) and some pioneering companies are mining turf (e.g. practice management software, EMRs) that has either already proven fertile in the States (despite the vastly different healthcare system) or that, though initially local or Europe-focused, may later turn out to be interesting for expansion. Those rounds have been on the small side, in keeping with the early stage of the companies and the low initial capital needs of software businesses. We’ll see if even more international VC funds begin to follow the pioneers in later rounds. Those international VCs, some of whom we reached, are certainly paying keen attention.

Withings' connected (and stylish) blood pressure monitor

Take your BP at home – in style

Breaking the mold

One company that breaks the mold is Withings, an Apple-like consumer products company based in France that started out selling an internet-connected scale added a blood-pressure cuff and is now branching out into a stylish wristwatch that doubles as a self-tracking device. 

MyTomorrows, based in the Netherlands, also offers something novel and very intriguing: an online platform that allows patients who have exhausted standard therapies to be treated with medicines not yet approved by regulatory authorities. Self- and angel-funded with $6 million, MyTomorrows already offers patients with an impressive list of diseases the opportunity to ask biotech companies directly for medications on a compassionate basis. If it gets over what are likely to be some very challenging regulatory hurdles, this one has real promise. 

But there are not many outliers like these and even fewer that have been financed by top VC firms. Furthermore, outside of the UK, VC activity in European health IT in general has been very limited. 

Will Mint be the solution? 

Thus it was with great interest that I noted the recent $6M Series A investment by two top-tier European VC firms, LSP and Seventure, in Mint Solutions, an early-stage company that originated in Iceland and has relocated to the Netherlands. 

As much a device as an IT play, Mint Solutions illustrates what is working about European health IT and at the same time why scaling will be hard. The challenge Mint addresses is errors that hospital personnel sometimes make in administering medication. Mint features a small bedside scanner (PICTURE?) that images the pills and confirms their identity before they are dosed. “The real challenge is the oral meds,” said Portwich, “not infusions. Mint has a scanner, a box with a drawer that comes out. First it does a 3D scan – shape, size, accompanying instructions. An algorithm verifies the identity of each pill. Then it gives a readout in a couple of seconds. It’s connected to the e-prescribing system. And it puts into the chart: ‘Mr. Miller got 2 ibuprofen and Lasix at 10am.’” 

Demand among Dutch hospitals – the company’s test market – is strong, said Portwich, spurring optimism that Mint’s solution, dubbed “MedEye,” can be marketed in other countries as well. A good review of MedEye and Mint Solutions appears here.

MedEye scanner

What’s next, a robot nurse? Don’t answer that…

In the “avoiding medical errors” market, though, the technology that has already taken hold in the United States is barcoding. This does not trouble Portwich. “We know that barcode scanning is widely used [in the States]. There is not yet 100% penetration but big hospitals have implemented it. But when you look at the long-term care facilities, that is a different story. Barcoding is not so well established there. So that could be our entry market.” 

Though LSP was early to discover Mint, to encourage co-founder Gauti Reynisson and his team to set up shop in the Netherlands rather than his native Iceland and to make a commitment to invest, Portwich recalled that, until Seventure came along, the search for a syndication partner was not so simple. “It felt like we are the only one” investing in health IT, she said. We spoke to IT investors and they said, ‘We only do software and this has a hardware component. They also said, ‘Oh, you are selling to hospitals – the sales cycle is too long.’ And our healthcare colleagues said, ‘Wait, but this is IT. We don’t do IT. We prefer medical devices.’” 

It helped that in 2012 LSP had set up a “health economics fund (HEF)” backed by two Dutch insurers, among other investors, in order to invest specifically in private healthcare companies with products close to market. In most cases, Portwich said, the HEF’s investments will go into traditional medical technology. 

Mint Solutions represents a type of company that Meier of Roche Venture says he is seeing increasingly often in the diagnostics space. To capture an opportunity, Meier says, “You have to number-crunch AND design a small device that does its job well. Both for the company and the investor, the small device is more the focus than the big data.” 

“Big time” IT and data plays in the healthcare space such as Foundation Medicine, in which Roche Venture invested, are still rare in Europe. “Look at Flatiron Health,” Meier said, an oncology-focused cloud-based data and analytics platform in which Google invested $100 million: “I have not seen anything similar in Europe.” 

Language barriers, fragmented markets, a pot of gold across the ocean: no wonder many European health IT entrepreneurs I know either have already moved or are thinking of moving to the States

I suppose the best that Europe can hope for besides outliers is that some of its best companies hit it big in the States and then return and offer their services in their home markets. But it will take a while before that starts to happen. 

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This post originally appeared on The Healthcare Blog.

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Stealth mode the new sweet spot for some biotechs

By Steve Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors and Sultan Meghji*

*Sultan Meghji is an entrepreneur and advisor in life sciences, financial services and high tech. He is based in St. Louis, Missouri.

In biotech’s early days, telling a story to a wide audience used to be part of the path to success. Founders would share a compelling early narrative to potential investors, reporters and just about anyone else who would listen. Nature papers were the coin of the realm. Molecular biologists with big dreams even became something of a cliché, memorialized in a joke one of us heard in the early 1990s from one of the scientific founders of Biogen. In the joke, a molecular biologist on his wedding night fails to consummate his marriage. A shocked friend asks the bride what happened and she says, “Oh, he just stood at the end of the bed all night telling me how great it was GOING to be.”

But far from shouting to the rooftops, lately it seems that more and more biotechs are pursuing a different approach. Instead of keeping their technology under wraps until a first financing happens, these companies go into what we call “permanent stealth mode.” The principle here seems to be, “Say no more publicly than necessary and even then, keep it vague.” Meantime, let your actions speak for you: Raise money. Sign partnerships with pharmaceutical companies. And then seemingly out of nowhere, hand consumers and investors a finished product or service.

Lately, we’ve seen some tech companies choose this path. Notably, the company that developed Siri was spun out of SRI International in such a way that Apple acquired it barely three months after the company’s voice recognition app was first offered in the App Store. That route is relatively new in IT and still fairly rare. It seems to be related to the fact that the competitive advantage held by some startups involves algorithms, which can be hard to protect using patents. But such an approach has been even rarer for biotech companies that, until recently, had to fight like rain forest vines for the light and nourishment that publicity could bring.

In this post, we’ll share some examples of three “deep stealth” life sciences companies that chose to stay on the stealthy side well beyond the timeframe of a typical startup: Moderna, Kadmon and Theranos. The first two are developing novel therapeutics and the third is a consumer diagnostics company. We will share what little we can find out about them; offer some analysis about what has motivated the companies to stay stealthy; and ask whether they represent the beginning of a trend and, if so, what that implies for the industry.

Moderna Therapeutics

In less than four years, Moderna has raised over $400 million. It has built a platform around RNA to trigger the production of protein drugs inside the bodies of patients, thus turning the body into a protein factory. We noted back in 2012 that Moderna’s approach turns the traditional dogma of biotech on its head: instead of manipulating the DNA in the lab and then producing proteins in cells or bacteria, then selling these proteins to the patient, Moderna instead takes messenger RNA, does some fancy chemical tricks to it and puts it into the body as RNA, letting the body’s own protein production machinery do the rest. We also noted that the company had chosen not to publish anything, even in scientific journals, leaving open the question of how the RNA would be stabilized and delivered (RNA in its native form is notoriously unstable not to mention subject to destruction by ubiquitous enzymes) and leaving the rest of us to wonder what the platform could really do and how it does it.

Then came a news bulletin: In 2013, Moderna struck a validating deal with AstraZeneca that included an unusually rich up-front payment: $240 million plus an additional $180 million in potential milestone payments. Then in January, 2014, it announced a deal with Alexion for $100 million up front and a $25 million equity investment plus undisclosed milestone and royalty payments. Yet even as of today, the company has put out but a single publication. Recently, the company spun out a subsidiary called Onkaido to focus on oncology. At the same time, its business strategy seems to be shifting. CEO Stephane Bancel told Xconomy in mid-June that it will become a holding company that spins out drug development companies and that “Moderna will most probably never develop and sell a drug.”

Kadmon Corporation

Kadmon, founded by Sam Waksal in 2009, has grown much larger than a typical privately held company ever does. Waksal is known both for founding ImClone in 1984 and for being convicted of securities fraud in 2003. Waksal’s work with ImClone eventually led to the approval and marketing of Erbitux, an early and influential targeted oncology therapy. ImClone was acquired by Lilly in 2008 for $6.5 billion.

Kadmon, which has been built mostly around acquisitions of later stage technologies, is not completely in stealth mode. It does have a web site that lists its clinical pipeline in some detail. Initially focused on oncology, liver disease and metabolic and cardiovascular disease, it now sells the hepatitis drug ribavirin. All of these pipeline products have been brought in by acquisition, beginning with the acquisition of Three Rivers Pharmaceuticals for more than $100 million in 2010, according to the Wall Street Journal. That company had products on the market at the time of acquisition, especially in hepatitis C. Bloomberg reported that Kadmon had reached $25 million in annual revenue by 2012 and was targeting $40 million to $60 million in 2013. Interviewed by Maria Bartiromo on CNBC in January, 2011, Waksal described a new paradigm for building a biotech company with a commercial arm that could serve as a “cash generating machine” so that “we don’t have to go to the [financial] markets to constantly raise money for drug development.”

The corollary to that is that, if it is funded by revenues, the company’s very exciting research does not have to be disclosed, even to venture capitalists and especially not to the public, in the context of fund-raising. At investor conferences, the company has described some fascinating RNA targeting technology that could represent a new generation of gene therapy. Waksal told Bloomberg in 2013 that Kadmon was considering a spinout of a gene therapy company and an oncology company focused on the Chinese market.

In the meantime, there are not too many publications (none linked on the Kadmon web site) and the company has had to cope with multiple warnings from the FDA over its marketed products.

Theranos

Theranos has recently begun to emerge from stealth mode, although its technology is still secret. This June, 2014, Fortune cover story reported that the eleven-year-old company is valued at $9 billion and that, due to her share ownership, company founder Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout, is worth $4.5 billion on paper.

Theranos’ blood draw technology replaces traditional, slow, overpriced blood testing with pinprick-style small-volume blood tests. By working efficiently on tiny volumes, Theranos is both cutting prices by half or more as well as increasing efficiency by allowing for follow-up tests to be done right away, according to the Fortune article.

How Theranos does all this remains a secret. But this “black box” has not prevented the company from raising what Fortune reports to be more than $400 million nor from striking a distribution partnership with Walgreens, a partnership that extends beyond Walgreens’ 8200 US stores to its European pharmacy partner Alliance Boots. In parallel, the company is working with hospitals to offer its tests in what the CEO of UCSF Medical Center told Fortune is “the true transformation of healthcare.” (USA Today covered much of the same ground in its July 8, 2014, edition here.)

Theranos’ vast ambition, coupled with its lack of publications subjecting its methods to scientific scrutiny, has not gone unnoticed, especially by competitors. Fortune wrote:

‘The most frequent criticism is that Theranos is using purportedly breakthrough technology to perform tests that are relied on for life-and-death decisions without having first published any validation studies in peer-review journals. “I don’t know what they’re measuring, how they’re measuring it, and why they think they’re measuring it,” says Richard Bender, an oncologist who is also a medical affairs consultant for Quest Diagnostics, the largest independent diagnostic lab.’

Why advertise?

The clearest unifying attribute of Moderna, Kadmon and Theranos is “high confidence,” followed closely by “high ambition.” There is no other way to raise the billion-plus dollars these three have raised. There has to be some technical know-how to go along with the bravado. Otherwise multi-hundred-million-dollar partnerships with national pharmacy chains or big pharma companies just do not materialize. Activating a direct commercial channel (in the case of Theranos with Walgreens) or a high-credibility development partner such as Moderna’s partner AstraZeneca is at least a temporary substitute for a look under the hood.

But there is something else going on as well. Let’s call it “stealth as a business model.” All three of these companies seem to share the belief that they will be better off if no one knows what they really do or how they do it. Most notably, they depart significantly from the status quo of publishing and presenting the technologies in an open forum as the gold standard for credibility. This is so unusual in the history of biotech that it made us think about the question the other way around: why would you want to disclose anything about your new biotech company? Just raise the money, sign a partnership and get on with it!

We thought of a good five reasons why many companies share at least the basics of their technical approach. (One company whose chances we like, Heptares of London, UK, published a paper in Nature in 2008 more than a year before they raised their Series A round. That company published in Nature again in early July of this year, gaining credibility from Nature’s name and its peer review process – a more traditional pattern.)

A clue to understanding the trend is the presence or absence of venture capital (VC) money. Of the three companies we chose to examine, only Moderna has disclosed an investment by a traditional VC, Flagship Ventures. It’s fine to stay in stealth if you want to raise money from a single VC, or for that matter from a single VC syndicate. As long as you don’t need “buzz” in the form of news articles and conference hall chatter, you can just go achieve your objectives without sharing much about what you are doing. These days, most early-stage therapeutics investments are done by an initial syndicate that intends to fund the companies through major milestones such as Phase 2 data or partnerships. Therefore the need for buzz is less. Next stop, hedge funds, who couldn’t care less about buzz and whose analysts may in some cases be confident enough to make big-ticket investments decisions based on unpublished data.

So why publish and share at all? Let’s set out some reasons and see if we can shoot them down: 

  • Fund-raising. As described above, that point seems moot. Atlas Venture in Cambridge has a whole stable of early startups and they keep their technology under wraps for a while – maybe all the way to exit? Third Rock Ventures incubates companies for a year or more before hatching them nearly fully formed and typically not intending to raise more money until the IPO anyway. Why not go all the way in stealth?
  • Corporate partnerships. Roche will find out about you whether you publish or not. If your scientific founder is already known to the therapeutic area head, all the better. If not, maybe better to publish.
  • Clinical trial recruitment. This is usually handled by intermediaries such as clinical research organizations (CROs). Patients are usually tracked down actively. Companies don’t wait for the patients to be pulled in via news stories (though the stories don’t hurt).
  • Hiring. This would seem to be a big one, especially in hotly competitive geographies such as Cambridge or the Bay Area. But now that more and more “virtual drug development” companies are filing for IPO in Phase 2 with staffs of fewer than fifteen people – two of these have been CBT Advisors clients in 2014 and two more have been clients of our co-author – the point seems less relevant
  • Overcoming resistance in society to biotechnology. This may have been a factor at the dawn of the industry in the 1980s but now there seems to be much less resistance, even in traditionally conservative societies like Germany. A more nuanced understanding of advanced biotech seems to be emerging and there is strong demand globally for more biotech companies, not less.

When you think about it, publishing has some downsides too. Most threatening among these is that publishing what you are doing will arm your competition. Yes, your patents will be published anyway eighteen months after you file them. But competition has intensified in the era of the patent troll. Why advertise?

The strong implication of all of these arguments is that biotechs should stay stealthy whenever possible. If founding scientists are not required to publish in order to get tenure or to get the next grant, they should, like our examples here, take it to investors, take it to pharma, fund it to the hilt and don’t look back.

In one sense, this does hark back to the early days of biotech, when companies were able to raise considerably more money for technology platforms that were years away from generating tangible products. That model went away early in the last decade, in part because investors – both hedge funds and venture funds – began to apply financial analysis tools to product portfolios, sharply cutting the valuations and the ability to fund-raise for all but products that already existed. The shift into stealth mode seems to be going hand-in-hand with a shift in investor favor toward early funding of powerful platforms such as Moderna’s. Once again, a company able to raise significant amounts of capital can try out several different things and allow some of them to fail quietly without the market playing a role.

We just want to mention one tiny nagging doubt: much of the research that underpins these companies comes about under the auspices of US government funding, typically from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But in the guidelines we found, there is no formal mechanism requiring disclosure once research is funded. It is not even required to be published. Nevertheless, it strikes us that sooner or later there may be a backlash to all this stealthiness.

And of course the longer term question remains: does having strong financing and a strong commercial channel replace independent peer review of the underlying technology?

In the meantime, we sincerely hope that all of these companies are successful. It would be an amazing day in healthcare if they were. And should that day come, we are imagining a moment when Hollywood decides to make the movie, akin to the way screenwriter Aaron Sorkin imagined the beginnings of Facebook in “The Social Network.” The big difference here is that the script writer will have an awful lot of liberty in shaping a story that no one has ever heard.

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Big Data in Drug Discovery and Healthcare: What is the Tipping Point?

By Steve Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors

What good is big data for drug discovery? Not much, if you ask the pharmaceutical industry. The world’s drugmakers have other challenges right now and, with a few notable exceptions like PatientsLikeMe, neither consumer-driven nor patient-driven “big data” seems to be part of the solution.

Even in the apparently more data-driven field of healthcare services, big data keeps bumping up against regulatory and practical barriers. As I wrote earlier this month, a funny thing happened to 23andme on the way to its now-on-hold million-person database….

Mark Murcko, Feyi Olopade and Ajit Singh

Mark Murcko, Feyi Olopade and Ajit Singh (Image courtesy EBD Group)

A recent panel of experts argued that trends in big data will drive up its relevance and provide a navigable path toward greater utility both in pharma and in healthcare. The panelists at the workshop I put together for the 2014 Biotech Showcase in San Francisco last week hinted that the time will soon come when “big data” is as much a part of both drug discovery and healthcare as it is of financial forecasting  and choosing driving routes that minimize traffic.

Click here to watch the video of the panel or copy-paste the link:

http://www.partnering360.com/insight/showroom/id/445

The companies that presented are NuMedii, a venture-backed company that calls itself a “digital pharma company” tackling drug discovery itself; and CancerIQ, a data analytics company focusing on aggregating data on how cancer patients are treated and using it to upgrade the treatment that can be provided in different geographies and types of hospitals.

Joining the CEOs of NuMedii and CancerIQ were Ajit Singh, a venture capitalist with Artiman Ventures who taught electrical engineering and neuroscience at Princeton and then ran global businesses for Siemens in oncology and digital radiology; and Mark Murcko, the former chief technology officer of Vertex Pharmaceuticals who is now running a consulting firm and advising computer-powered drug discovery firms such as Schrodinger and Nimbus Discovery.

Due to these engaging and insightful speakers, this was a fascinating panel that delivered all sorts of hints about what looks like an upcoming turning point. Topics included (time stamps on video in parentheses):

  • What sort of venture investor would understand a big data company in healthcare, IT or life science? (10:10) and (12:45)
  • Where do big data startups go to even get their data given the high degree of regulation? (27:00) and (28:50)
  • How can innovative startups avoid being stopped cold by HIPAA? (21:30)
  • What will be the turning point at which the pharmaceutical industry sees big data as a driver of solutions rather than just noise? (32:40) and (38:00) and (52:20)
  • Is genomic data “big data”? (17:00)
  • How can “sparse data” be just as useful as “big data” in solving certain problems? (43:00)
  • How can newly industrialized countries like India and China contribute to models that might be useful in the United States and Europe? Will they “go first” in some sense in using big data? (44:30)
Gini Deshpande, Founder-CEO of NuMedii

Gini Deshpande, Founder-CEO of NuMedii (Image courtesy EBD Group)

Here is a more complete list of time stamps:

  • (2:00) Definition of Big Data “Things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one to extract new insights or create new forms of value in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments and more.” (From the 2013 book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think by Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier)
  • (3:00) Gini Deshpande self-introduction. “At NuMedii, we are a digital pharma company. We are focused on leveraging the vast amounts of life sciences big data that is out there and translating it into drugs with a higher probability of therapeutic and commercial success….We are a pharma company. We leverage the data and turn the data into drug candidates.”
  • (4:20) Mark Murcko self-introduction.
  • (5:10) Feyi Olopade self-introduction. “My co-founder is my mother. She is a nutty professor slash clinical oncologist slash MacArthur genius fellow. It was my mother’s vision to start using data and analytics to deliver more precision treatment and more precision risk assessment….We hope to democratize access to premium cancer care by helping providers deliver data-driven decisions.”
  • (6:35) Ajit Singh self-introduction
  • (7:45) In the world of healthcare, the analytics revolution has barely begun
  • (10:10) How NuMedii bridges the (large) gap between healthcare investors and IT investors
  • (12:45) How CancerIQ bridges the same gap
  • (14:35) Early days of analytics: Shared Medical Systems
  • (17:00) Why genomic data may not be big data
  • (20:35) How 23andme learned the hard way about regulation of medical data
  • (21:30) On overcoming HIPAA: a fascinating framework
  • (25:00) Why IT investing is easier: world of atoms vs. world of bits
  • (27:00) How CancerIQ gets its data
  • (28:50) How NuMedii gets its data
  • (32:40) Why pharma is still (mostly) focused on the drug candidates
  • (38:00) The importance of actionability
  • (41:00) Q&A: How to de-identify health data
  • (42:15) Cancer patients are very willing to share their (personal) information
  • (43:00) The best data may not be big data
  • (44:30) International big data in healthcare – will it take the lead? Case: India
  • (49:00) Case: China
  • (52:20) Why pharma does not yet trust “black box” models – they do not tell a story, says Murcko

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Futuristic “human-on-chip” models will drive better predictions for efficacy, safety

By Steve Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors

Note: A shorter version of this piece ran on Xconomy.

The pharmaceutical industry needs better scientific models for testing drugs before they get to the proving ground of human clinical trials. Current lab dish models and animal testing models are time-consuming, expensive and chronically unable to predict which drugs are going to work in clinical trials. The industry is crying out for new modes of early testing that can shorten the timelines, reduce the cost and increase the odds of success in clinical trials.

Both lab dish models and animal models have run into serious limitations. Cell culture (“in vitro”) assays offer some real advantages. Many can provide true, “human” answers to fairly simple questions. But they lack complexity.

Therefore, due both to regulatory requirements and convention, pharmaceutical companies have for decades progressed their testing from cells into animals, where the testers can see the impact on an entire organism with all its interconnecting systems.

But animal models are in some ways even worse. As Dylan Walsh pointed out in his timely New Yorker blog post last week, most animal testing – the kind done in rodents – is crude and ineffective, not to mention how it feels for the mice.

The cosmetics and consumer products companies are in just as tough a bind. For them, safety is paramount but animal testing has been banned as of 2013 for products marketed in Europe and soon to be eliminated in China. If non-animal models that show safety became available, then L’Oreal, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever would be queuing up to use them.

Fortunately, the reliance on this unfortunate patchwork might be about to crack. If cell models could be shown to predict efficacy in a reliable way, ineffective therapeutic candidates would fail faster – and cheaper.  Better safety testing would drastically reduce the sacrifice of animals while yielding more predictive results. Here, though, any changes there would likely take many years due to the immense difficulty of making regulatory agencies like the US Food and Drug Administration comfortable with new regulations.

In fact, futuristic models are beginning to appear. Walsh’s New Yorker post features Harvard luminary Don Ingber, who has been working, organ by organ, on establishing better in vitro models since the founding of his Wyss Institute (the delightful full name of which is the “Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering”). His strong academic work in sophisticated in vitro tissue engineering reaches back to the early 1990s. As Walsh writes, “Recent efforts have led to fully functioning “organs-on-a-chip,” named with a nod to their roots in microchip manufacturing. A critical and deceptively simple benefit of these organs-on-a-chip is that they simulate, in a rudimentary way, the mechanical motion essential to organ function.”

Ingber’s lab is in the lead in this area, especially in lung models. I wrote about Ingber’s work here in 2010. Walsh writes:

“The physical mechanics of organs-on-a-chip—the lung-on-a-chip can “breathe” like a normal lung—provide an essential advantage over inert cells grown in a petri dish. For instance, in a recent experiment conducted by Ingber’s lab, when a set of the lungs-on-a-chip that could “breathe” were dosed with the cancer medication interleukin-2, they were afflicted by a well-documented side effect of the medication in humans, severe pulmonary edema; only mild symptoms appeared in a model of the lungs-on-a-chip that didn’t breathe. ‘We’ve ignored mechanics for a century,’ Ingber said.”

These single-organ models are impressive. In October, 2013, the Wyss Institute signed a collaboration at undisclosed terms on the development of human and animal “organs-on-chips” for safety testing.

The Wyss Institute's human breathing lung-on-a-chip mimicked pulmonary edema in humans

The Wyss Institute’s human breathing lung-on-a-chip mimicked pulmonary edema in humans (Image courtesy Wyss Institute http://wyss.harvard.edu/viewpressrelease/99)

In some cases, less sophisticated models in tissues such as liver and skin have already become industry standards. I wrote about these models, and the likely future of this field, here in 2009.

Europeans take the lead

More ambitious models are on the way. A US government initiative, which was showcased in an invitation-only symposium in Europe in September, 2012, recently put up $140 million to develop a network of ten “plug-and-play” organs that survive for four weeks and can, like Legos, be easily rearranged in different orders.

The effort by NIH and DARPA to address European product developers – and get an update on their progress – was done with good reason. As Walsh’s post mentions in a brief aside, there are a few efforts from “a handful of labs worldwide [that] have so far constructed a system with more than one organ.”

One of these is in Berlin, Germany, where the company TissUse, a CBT Advisors client, is pioneering perhaps the most advanced of these efforts. Recognizing that the secret to mimicking complex biology in culture lies in a combination of organ architecture and live circulation, TissUse, spun out of Berlin’s Technical University in 2010, has built its platform around organoids, the minimal functional units of organs. These include liver lobules, skin segments, kidney nephrons and the lining of the intestine. They might eventually include pancreatic islets, where insulin is produced. These organoids can be bathed in appropriate nutrients, and have waste products taken away, at the same scale at which they are served by capillaries in the body. Scale is extremely important in biology. This effort to mimic the natural scale of organ biology makes the TissUse system both robust and modular.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but organoids can be thought of as similar to the transistors that started to replace vacuum tubes in the 1950s. Transistors made modern electronics – laptops, mobile phones, tablets – possible. Similarly, organoids open up vast possibilities. The technologies for first creating them and then packing them optimally onto chips are still in their infancy.

Putting multiple tissues – with all or most of their attendant cell types – into culture and connecting them with tiny “blood vessels” in a physiological order – first intestine and liver than all other organs – will require a virtuoso combination of architecture, engineering and biology, all done at micro (not nano) scale. No wonder we have not been able to find more than a couple of companies that are talking publicly about their work on the topic.

Besides TissUse, the most advanced company that we found to be working on multi-organ models is Hurel, founded in 2006 by Michael Shuler of Cornell University. Hurel raised Series A funds from hedge fund Spring Mountain Capital in April, 2013. The Hurel web site talks about “products under development for future release” that involve “fluidically mediated metabolic interaction of different cell-based models drawn from or representing different bodily organs, such as liver-with-heart and liver-with-kidney combinations.” (Shuler’s January, 2013, review article on lab-on-chip systems including those incorporating several organs is here, behind a pay wall. None of these efforts appear to be company-led.)

Hemoshear of Charlottesville, Virginia, has set an emerging industry standard for “vascular pharmacology” by including the impact of dynamic blood flow on cells in culture. Founded in 2008 out of the nearby University of Virginia, Hemoshear was reported in 2012 to have ten biopharmaceutical industry customers. The company puts cells of different organs, most recently liver, into their dynamic systems that push blood past the liver cells. That allows them to get a high-quality look at liver toxicity, drug metabolism and drug-drug interactions. Aside from the useful combination of different organs with vasculature, the company has not reported multi-organ approaches, let alone organoid-based ones.

Another interesting one is Zyoxel, based in Oxfordshire in Great Britain. Zyoxel was founded by Zhanfeng Cui of the University of Oxford based on technology from Cui’s lab and the lab of Linda Griffith of MIT. The Zyoxel chip is liver-only. That is the single-organ focus of many in vitro testing companies that have created “3D liver” systems. According to the web site, the Zyoxel chip’s key distinguishing feature is “a scaffold whose dimensions have been engineered to recreate the capillary bed structure of the liver sinusoid.” That approach sounds promising and it will become even more so once scientists have actually shown that they can grow the capillaries on the chip.

Eleven organs – the true “human” on chip?

By comparison, the science at TissUse is both advanced and extremely ambitious. The early TissUse chips feature a combination of organs, liver and skin, connected with channels that circulate culture medium and, soon, human blood that moves through “vessels” comprised of endothelial cells that will grow directly inside the channels.

Liver and skin were chosen in part because they are the most complex single-organ systems currently in use in vitro. Moreover, liver is the gatekeeper for oral drugs entering the bloodstream and skin is the gatekeeper for cosmetics. TissUse is tying them together both because the company has strong expertise in both but also because they can create some interesting and useful models with them, for example, models that allow them to study potential liver toxicity of skin-penetrating chemicals or skin sensitivity to liver metabolites of drugs. Furthermore, such a combination allows TissUse to study distribution, metabolism and toxicity, three components of the “ADMET” profile of a substance, which is the basis of current safety testing in animals. “ADMET” stands for absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion and toxicity.

TissUse’s two-organ chip

TissUse’s two-organ chip. Photo courtesy Tissuse GmbH

Used singly, both liver & skin have severe limitations. TissUse is trying to remedy these. Most of the company’s work is not yet published but one observation is that liver cells, when encouraged to form organoids and then combined with skin tissues, can live in homeostasis for a long time. This allows the company to conduct extended repeat-dose testing over weeks, much longer than the current standard of several days for single-dose drug testing on liver or skin cell culture routinely performed today in industry. The practical time limit for culturing liver organoids in the TissUse system has not yet been reached. Early published results point to a time frame of at least 28 days.

The powerful nature of TissUse’s system becomes evident when you consider the next step: to test “A” and “E,” adsorption and excretion, all you have to do is add intestine and nephrons from the kidney. The company is already working on doing just that. Eventually, TissUse’s founder-CEO Uwe Marx envisions up to eleven organs connected by “blood vessels” on the company’s chips. The initial chip design takes that goal into account.

Head-to-head data is starting to emerge comparing multi-organ chips with standard efficacy and toxicity assays. That will prove their predictive ability. Such a system will then address industry’s need for verisimilitude in therapeutics and cosmetics testing without sacrificing animals or accuracy.

The future human-on-a-chip?

The future human-on-a-chip? Image courtesy TissUse

“You on a chip”?

Another level of utility not yet addressed by TissUse but surely on the horizon is patient-specific testing of medications outside the body using iPS cells (inducible pluripotent stem cells). Scientists create these cells from human skin or other tissues and “reprogram” them to become cells of almost any tissue. Companies such as Cellular Dynamics in Madison, Wisconsin, are already beginning to deliver large quantities of iPS cells on an industrial scale and with pharmaceutical quality controls in place. In my view, that source of supply alone is a game-changer for drug testing. The company had a surprisingly strong IPO given the “picks-and-shovels” nature of its business, probably because its revenues are growing nicely. It won’t be long, I predict, before innovative companies start to offer outside-the-body testing especially for patients with chronic or long-term diseases who can therefore afford to wait to have their cells custom-grown.

But without the multi-organ and organoid-based nature of TissUse’s technology, it is hard to see that patient-focused business reaching its full potential. Indeed, a company called iPierian backed by the illustrious US venture firm Kleiner Perkins and other top VC firms was founded in part to industrialize just such iPS-cell-based, patient-centric disease models. I heard iPierian’s then-CEO John Walker describe this approach a talk at an investor conference in 2010 and it was captured in this 2010 blog post on Xconomy by Luke Timmerman. That company has since changed its business model and I have not heard of others.

Forward-minded venture investor Founders Fund of San Francisco laments the “medieval” approach used in traditional pharmaceutical discovery. The right sources of capital combined with the right industry partnerships, both currently emerging, might give Hurel, Hemoshear, Zyoxel, TissUse and other companies a path to preclinical testing that is both more accurate and more humane.

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Disclosure: TissUse is a client of CBT Advisors.

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Biotech VCs, Stung by Startup Returns, Elbow into Royalty Financing

By Steve Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors

Aug. 21, 2013

(Originally published on Xconomy)

The new landscape for venture capital investing does not seem to leave much room for classic company formation. Investor after investor has shut down or moved beyond startups into what seem like greener pastures.

So it should come as no surprise that at least a few VC firms are now expanding into the royalty space, as shown by a deal announced this week. Aisling Capital and Clarus Ventures, two top-tier VC firms, acquired 20 percent of the royalty stream created by sales of ibrutinib, a novel tyrosine kinase inhibitor developed by Pharmacyclics (NASDAQ: PCYC) and partnered with Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) for use in B-cell malignancies such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

According to the press release, Aisling and Clarus each invested $48.5 million for matching 10 percent shares of a $485 million royalty-financing deal that Royalty Pharma struck last month with Quest Diagnostics Inc. (NASDAQ: DGX). Ibrutinib recently was designated by FDA as a “breakthrough” therapy. Analysts cited by FierceBiotech expect the drug to hit $5 billion in revenues in a short time, making the royalty stream very valuable. Under a deal structured like this, Aisling and Clarus are essentially wagering that the drug will be a blockbuster, and will provide them much more than $48.5 million in steady royalties over the lifetime of the product’s patent – if they or their limited partners do not choose to take profits first. It would not surprise me to see some of the royalties later bought back at higher prices by Royalty Pharma or acquired by third parties.

There is no doubt in my mind that the choice to invest in royalties had to be explicitly approved by the funds’ limited partners (LPs), either in the fund charter or, more likely, in an ad hoc fashion before this deal was done. I can’t imagine there was much resistance when the Aisling and Clarus general partners described the risk-reward in the ibrutinib deal. The LPs probably asked them to do more of this type of investing, given the product’s high-reward/low-risk profile.

The announcement answered two questions in my mind: first, what will VC funds do now that the returns make it harder to justify raising more money to support traditional models? Second, what will royalty funds do to make money now that they are facing a more efficient (read: barbarously competitive) market for the royalties of approved drugs?

Royalty deals as likely winners

In some ways this deal looks like a one-off: maturing VC funds that need to deploy large amounts of capital setting themselves up for near-term (if more modest) returns in lieu of typical home-run, long-term bets on early-stage biotech. Once they get a few of these out of their system, the VCs will swing back to their true nature as swashbuckling, entrepreneurial investors, right?

I am not so sure. In fact, I would argue that actually the royalty play illustrates the “new normal” in life sciences VC investing: a search for investments with short time horizons; a lack of faith in preclinical or even phase I molecules and the teams developing them; and an irresistible pull to “sure-fire” deals of a more financial nature.[1]

These are the same trends that have led to the rise of the asset-based strategies deployed by life science VC funds like Atlas Venture and Index Ventures. Those strategies build portfolios of assets, rather than management teams, and flexibly deploy those teams in ways that can be changed depending on the success of the molecules.

The trends have also led to a much more active market in secondary positions of VC funds. In secondary investing, funds buy up positions in VC-backed companies. They buy them either from general partners who are exiting the business or choosing not to manage older funds all the way to exit; or from limited partners who prefer up-front cash to hoping for later exits from their illiquid VC investments. Sales in the secondary market of overall private equity investments, including those in venture capital, were reported to hit a record $26 billion in 2012.

Some long-time VCs have told me recently that their firms are promising limited partners to do secondary investing as part of their core business, just as secondary funds such as Omega Funds have branched out into direct investing. Whereas royalty investing is more of a numbers game, secondary investing to me feels like a true hybrid of VC skills (assessing value in early-stage or mid-stage companies and managing portfolios of such investments skillfully) and financial engineering skills (pricing the portfolios well enough to stave off competition and still leave room for an arbitrage).

Late last year, a client approached my firm CBT Advisors and asked us to make a case for investing in life sciences venture capital. The client, a family office with a private equity bent, was preparing to deploy some capital in life sciences and wanted to know what strategy made the most sense for a potential limited partner.

CBT Advisors teamed up with Fred Meyer, another Boston-area consultant, and the team carried out some strategic and financial analysis based on our knowledge of the industry and on the limited available data. The upshot of our work: there are several alternatives, including secondary investments, that can provide what look like better returns than VC (especially when considering the 10-year historical figures) at what looks like considerably less risk.

One of the approaches on our list was royalty investing. We concluded that, strictly from a risk/return perspective, royalty firms were a very attractive way to participate in pharmaceutical finance. Royalty Pharma, in particular, has built a stellar track record investing in the royalties on marketed drugs such as sitagliptin (Januvia), a diabetes drug from Merck that accounted for $5.7 billion in revenue in 2012 and adalimumab (Humira), a treatment from AbbVie for autoimmune diseases that recently hit  $9.3 billion in annual revenue, making it one of the best-selling drugs of all time.

But Royalty is at some risk of becoming a victim of its own success. The fund, which had little competition when it was founded in 1996, has grown to over $10 billion in assets, and it is facing a much more competitive market for royalty streams of approved drugs.

So the announcement of what is, according to VentureWire (paywall), one of Royalty’s first three investments in a not-yet-approved drug was not a total surprise. Today’s press release completes the picture. Royalty Pharma got an assist on the due diligence on ibrutinib from Aisling and Clarus and the VC funds got a piece of the action.

The end of VC? Hardly

Where does this all end? To me, it does not spell the end of VC as we know it. To the contrary. Even those investors (like Aisling and Clarus) making headlines for investing in royalties are still actively looking at direct investments into startups and (especially) later-stage companies. At the end of the day, most venture capitalists like these funds who have made it to 2013 with any dry powder at all are in a position to make the case that early-stage, high-risk investing will continue to play out well for selected investors. The recent wide-open biotech IPO window has certainly bolstered their case.

Part of my argument has to do with both the skill sets and the personal wishes of VCs, who are usually more adept at (and more interested in) the messy reality of picking management teams, intellectual property and assets that will make companies work instead of primarily crunching the numbers. Many VCs would rather find other jobs if all that was left in VC was financial analysis.

But more of it has to do with the returns. When I look at the stellar track records of folks who have recently raised funds (Jean George, Mike Carusi, Jim Broderick, Chris Christofferson and Hank Plain of Lightstone Ventures; Martin Murphy of Syncona), I am encouraged in thinking that royalty investing is just one of many ways that VCs are finding to raise new funds that they hope will make money for investors. First, the ibrutinib deal has to go well, along with others like it that are undoubtedly in the works. At least in this case, the likelihood of ibrutinib becoming a commercial success is high and the timeline is short. If the drug and deal do, in fact, succeed, then the benefits will accrue to the entire ecosystem.

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[1] VentureWire (paywall) quoted Clarus managing director Nick Simon saying that Clarus invests “opportunistically” in royalties and that late last decade, Clarus had obtained a royalty interest in Lexiscan, a medication used in cardiac stress testing, and later sold that interest to Royalty Pharma.

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“Alternatives to VC” panel video (actually very much about VC, especially in Europe) – BioEurope Spring, March 2013

This is not a traditional post but rather a link to a video of a fun panel that I moderated at BioEurope Spring in Barcelona in March, 2013. The discussion touched on several hot issues in funding innovation in life sciences, especially translational research.

Here’s the link: http://www.partnering360.com/insight/showroom/id/0_p9ec32p3

To help you find points of interest, I’m listing some approximate time stamps below.

PANEL DATE: March 11, 2013

PANEL DESCRIPTION

With the shortage of classical VC investing and the ongoing boom in early opportunities and strong entrepreneurs, traditional VC is beginning to share the spotlight with alternative models. For therapeutics companies that have already raised some capital or especially those that have products in the clinic, there are some new alternatives to choose from, including option deals, one-product financings from VCs, and pre-IPO royalty-based financing.

Moderator:
Steve Dickman – CEO, CBT Advisors

Panelists:

  • Sinclair Dunlop – Managing Partner, Rock Spring Ventures
  • Joël Jean-Mairet – General Partner, Ysios Capital
  • Kevin Johnson – Partner, Index Ventures
  • Melissa Stevens – Deputy Executive Director, FasterCures

CONTENTS

  • 0:00 Panel intro (Steve Dickman)
  • 3:19 FasterCures (Melissa Stevens), channeling non-dilutive foundation cash into therapy development
  • 4:29 Index Ventures (Kevin Johnson) intro and description of pharma-backed fund
  • 4:50 Rock Spring (Sinclair Dunlop) intro – UK VC
  • 5:20 Ysios (Joel Jean-Mairet) intro – Spanish-European VC
  • 7:25 What are the mechanics of asset-based financings? We’ve done 27 of them… (Johnson)
  • 12:15 Ysios (Jean-Mairet) view on asset-based financing “experiment” in molecular diagnostics
  • 14:00 Why Index would love to invest in diagnostics but can’t do it (Johnson)
  • 18:30 How things are better in lean, asset-based companies (Johnson) “Working in a tinpot biotech is more fun” than in an old-fashioned fully integrated company.
  • 19:55 How Rock Spring (Dunlop) does early-stage platforms & products
  • 21:15 Refinancing risk has grown (Jean-Mairet)
  • 22:45 How times have changed in LS VC (Jean-Mairet)
  • 24:15 The key to avoiding “zombie” companies – suicide (Johnson)
  • 25:40 More (interesting!) details on FasterCures and how foundations are changing the investing game (Stevens)
  • 28:48 National MS Society’s “Fast Forward” venture-like group (Stevens)
  • 30:55 CF Foundation and its Vertex and now Pfizer relationships (Stevens)
  • 32:55 American Heart Association (AHA) learning more about venture philanthropy (Stevens)
  • 36:15 Venture philanthropy in Europe (Dunlop)
  • 46:15 Tech transfer report card (Dickman, panel)
  • 57:00 How European & Israeli seed funds are trying to bridge the venture gap (panel)
  • 1:04:00 How to ensure succession in biotech (Johnson, panel)
  • 1:08:00 Why there are not more young entrepreneurs in life sciences (Johnson)
  • 1:15:00 The Andrew Lo “Megafund”: will it fly (Stevens, panel)
  • 1:18:00 Other debt models for supporting translational work (Jean-Mairet)
  • 1:22:00 Cross-border seed-stage investing (Dickman)

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Can the Amgen Takeout of Micromet Juice German Biotech? Can Anything?

By Steve Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors

Now that Germany has had its first billion-dollar biotech exit, it seems it would be about time for the beleaguered German biotech sector to enjoy a welcome jolt of juice. Amgen plans to lay out $1.16 billion in cash to acquire Micromet (NASDAQ: MITI) in a deal announced on January 26.

Generally, big exits create new opportunities. As a wishful example, consider the impact of the upcoming monster $10 billion IPO of Facebook, which will likely spark financially secure engineers to start new companies and multimillionaire founders to start new venture funds.

So is it time to celebrate in Germany? Not exactly. But there may be some good news for German biotech if we dig deep enough. I believe that the Micromet acquisition and other recent successes could serve as a valuable proof-of-concept for biotech products and technologies “made in Germany.” There are plenty of seedlings growing up from German universities and spinning out of existing companies. This is a good time to focus on them.

Tough trickle-down

Amgen’s big-ticket acquisition will likely not translate directly into a rash of new startups. The techniques used in inventing Micromet’s products – bispecific antibodies for systemic treatment of cancer and other severe diseases – are not easily transferred. Amgen has said that it intends to retain virtually all two hundred employees located at the Munich site. Some itchy would-be founders may eventually leave but the short-term impact will be limited.

More difficult for the German biotech scene, Micromet has not been a purely or even mostly German company for a long time. Its January, 2006, reverse merger with the failed California biotech CancerVax gave it a NASDAQ ticker symbol and a U.S. headquarters. The company raised $328 million in total of which $264 million came in PIPEs and follow-ons following the CancerVax merger. There was also approximately $60 million cash on hand at CancerVax when the companies merged.

Despite its impressive size, the Micromet exit is surprisingly no more than “a mediocre hurrah” for local VCs, one Germany-based VC investor told me. “VCs here have mixed feelings about this deal since … very few investors [who made initial investments into the company] were able to make money.”

Dollars slipping away

Why not? Clinical trials were going to be expensive. Likely acquirers were far away. Some funds faced restrictions on cross-border or public investing. Others simply did not have the money to push a company so far towards clinical proof-of-concept. The lack of local capital threatened to leave the company unable to prove the value in its innovative products. Hence, many of the gains were made by investors in public shares such as crossover funds and hedge funds.

Before I unveil my modest proposal for how to help the next crop of projects and companies in Germany, let’s look at where we are, how we got here and then I’ll return to where we can go next.

Bye-bye bubble

The world’s biotech boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s proved to be too much of a bubble for many German companies and investors. Some early companies were not built for sustainability and after some 2000-era fairy-tale financings on Frankfurt’s Neuer Markt, public biotech investors in Germany were badly burned. They have largely not returned.

The situation is not much better for venture capital funds. Otello Stampacchia, managing partner at Omega Funds, one of the institutional investors with the longest-term stake in Micromet, said that the VC shortage afflicting Europe is “particularly bad in Germany. Compared to what has happened, say, in the UK, there has been a colossal shrinkage.”

What is left in Munich, Berlin, Stuttgart, Heidelberg and other fertile biotech regions is both promising and problematic: truly world-class science; experienced entrepreneurs and employees; over eight hundred companies; and a severe lack of both venture and growth capital. Hence, in Micromet’s case, the truly creative solution of a reverse merger in 2006 and the successive financings in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

MITIgating factors

The company’s big exit, albeit on a leukemia product not yet been approved by FDA, is a beacon of light for German startups. I asked eight venture and public investors in Germany about the acquisition’s impact and the response was one of optimism tempered with caution. “The general message is positive, namely, that German biotech is capable of turning cutting-edge basic research into a full-blown company,” said one financial VC in Munich.

The capital shortage that Micromet encountered in Germany is emblematic of issues faced everywhere by therapeutics startups: the more innovative you are, the tougher it is. It takes more time than a VC fund lifetime of ten years for such technologies to reach Phase 3 or commercial status or achieve a big exit. A typical timeline is fifteen years. (Micromet was founded in 1996.)

Micromet rings the bell

Micromet rings the bell

Now that Micromet has proven the case for innovative biotech products nurtured in Germany, the burning question for investors, one of them told me, is “whether deals like the Micromet M&A creates more international VC activity in Germany.” With IPO markets shuttered and little in the way of growth capital, I suspect that the answer is likely “not anytime soon.”

But even if traditional VC does not return in significant amounts to Germany, some of the near-ripe fruit there is worth watching. Those companies include two that had the honor of presenting at the 2012 JP Morgan Healthcare Conference: NOXXON, based in Berlin, which is carrying out multiple clinical trials in a variety of high-value indications for its exciting spiegelmer technology; and Probiodrug, based in Halle, which is pursuing a unique and highly interesting approach to treating Alzheimer’s disease by attacking the underlying disease biology in a novel way. A third company, Curetis in Stuttgart, announced in November that Roche Venture Fund had made an investment alongside a Netherlands-based financial VC fund, Forbion. Curetis’ technology can rapidly identify pathogens causing hospital-acquired or severe community-acquired infections like pneumonia by bringing highly multiplexed PCR reactions into the hospital lab.

Those are just the most advanced companies. There are many more behind them and their technologies and approaches have much to offer. (Affimed in Heidelberg and Synimmune in Tübingen are just two examples in the bispecific antibody space.) Consider the technology areas in which German companies have thrived: they are mostly intricate (like Micromet’s bispecific antibody technology or Curetis’ 50-analyte PCR); they are more likely to be enabling technologies than therapeutic products (one local expert estimated that only fifteen or twenty of those eight hundred companies are working on therapeutic products that they themselves intend to develop); these enabling technologies cost $10 million to $50 million (or more) to develop; and, once mature, they will turn out to be highly valuable to big industrial companies in pharmaceuticals and related sectors like diagnostics. Stellar examples, aside from Micromet, are easy to spot:

MorphoSys: inventor of an antibody generation technology, this venture-backed startup nearly succumbed in the early 2000s to the same shortage of capital that forced Micromet out of Germany, then “went public on a hope and a prayer,” according to one investor. “Now it’s a real company,” he said, with a recent market cap of $420 million.

Direvo: an enzyme engineering business for protein therapeutics sold in 2009 for $230 million to Bayer Schering; the original technology was spun out into the “new Direvo” and is now in innovative use for industrial enzyme development; like the original Direvo, it is based in Cologne.

Jerini: a therapeutics company in Berlin acquired by Shire in 2008 for € 328 million ($521 million).

Brahms: a molecular diagnostics company acquired by Thermo Fisher in 2009 for $479 million.

MTM Laboratories: a molecular diagnostics company in Darmstadt acquired by Roche in 2011 for up to € 190 million ($269 million).

No one doubts Germany’s ability to generate attractive up-and-coming academic projects and small companies.  As one investor put it, “the start-up scene is healthy and ‘well-seeded’ by various grant systems like GO-Bio and government-affiliated institutions such as High-Tech Gründerfonds.”* The bottleneck is capital.

Pharma to the rescue?

Last time I checked, the pharmaceutical industry was shutting down internal research and scouring the world for innovation. Some pharma CEOs are saying that pharma should not invest in internal R&D at all any more. By contrast, pharmaceutical companies are beefing up their corporate VC activities. I count no fewer than twelve VC funds affiliated with pharmaceutical companies, some of which have roots in Germany (Boehringer Ingelheim) or German-speaking Europe (Novartis) and some of these have a strong interest in clinical diagnostics (Roche).

All these funds need look no further than Germany. What a fit! On top of the fertile environment for technologies, labor is relatively cheap. As I learned as a venture capitalist in a Germany-based fund, the cost of a laboratory worker in Germany is roughly half of the cost in the United States and the quality of their work is as high if not higher.

And the managers needed to bring technology platforms to proof of concept are present in larger numbers than at any time in the country’s history. They have worked by the dozens in German companies that have had solid exits – starting with Micromet and extending to Brahms, MTM Laboratories, Direvo, Jerini and MorphoSys – and strong sales – Evotec, Miltenyi and Qiagen in addition to the local pharmaceutical industry (Bayer Schering, the former Sanofi Aventis, and Boehringer Ingelheim).

The growth capital bottleneck should present no major obstacle to corporate venture investors who are both investing more and also increasingly working side-by-side in companies such as Aileron Therapeutics and Celladon Corporation, US-based companies that have attracted four corporate VCs each.

If pharma is the investor then the exit could well be integration into one or another pharma company’s own research efforts. Investing with the aim of achieving technical proof of concept in therapeutics or early commercial validation in the case of non-therapeutic platforms would alleviate the need for fifteen years of funding. The “harvest” could come much earlier. But who knows? Once investors see that their efforts are being rewarded, they might choose to let the companies carry on independently, issuing technology dividends and financial dividends alike.

What’s missing is a catalytic action on the part of those VCs, especially corporate VCs, already active in Germany together with the German government. A government co-investment growth fund of € 200 million or € 300 million, actively managed and investing in each deal alongside a minimum of two corporate or financial VCs, could make a huge difference. The seedlings are beginning to grow. Time to water them.

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Disclosure: Steve Dickman or CBT Advisors have worked recently with Curetis, Direvo and Probiodrug and previously with Evotec, Jerini, MorphoSys and NOXXON.

*GO-Bio has financed thirty-four projects in four rounds, leading to fifteen companies. High-Tech Gründerfonds, also based in Berlin, which finances high-tech startups including those in medical technology- and healthcare-related fields, has been active since 2005 and recently began investing a second fund of € 288.5 million.

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