The Boston Biotech Survival Index: Big Fish Still Swimming, Minnows Getting Eaten

Xconomy Boston — 

New England has a deep pond with many of the very biggest fish in the global life sciences industry, but it also has its share of minnows, and they are getting eaten alive in the downturn.

That finding leaped out at me after I scoured through financial data on 85 publicly traded life sciences companies in greater Boston, Seattle, and San Diego as part of our regular Biotech Survival Index feature. The final numbers aren’t pretty for Boston. Just 15 of the 46 public life sciences companies we follow in Massachusetts had more cash on their balance sheet at the end of June 2009 than they did on New Year’s Day, based on a review of the most recent round of quarterly financial filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. (Companies were included if they were listed on the NASDAQ or NYSE, and had market capitalization of at least $100 million).

Even though jobs have been cut, drug candidates have been shelved, and some last-ditch partnerships have been struck, all that frenzied activity didn’t really add up to a strengthened financial future for a majority of the region’s money-losing companies. The cash crunch has prompted a couple of Massachusetts companies to fold this year (Altus Pharmaceuticals and Epix Pharmaceuticals), a couple more to sell out for a pittance (Targanta Therapeutics and NitroMed), and one company that actually improved its financial position to move to Wisconsin (Exact Sciences).

While those companies were vanishing, there was some good news to be found in the filings. Some of Boston’s anchor tenants took advantage of their financial strength to beef up their cash balances, pay down debt, or otherwise tidy up financial matters. Essentially, the rich (Biogen Idec, Genzyme, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Millipore, to name a few) got richer.

But what really shocked me the most was how poorly Boston’s life sciences companies have coped with the downturn compared with peers in the two other cities where Xconomy follows life sciences—Seattle and San Diego. Granted, neither of those cities has anywhere near the number of profitable life sciences companies that Boston does (18). And many of the little biotechs in those cities were backed into a corner in the first half of 2009, and either had to do or die—and things don’t appear quite that dire yet at many companies in Boston. But a majority of companies in Seattle (7 of 12) actually strengthened their balance sheets during the first half of the year. The same pattern emerged in San Diego, where 15 of the 27 companies built up their cash reserves in the same period.

If you combine those two hubs into a West Coast cluster that has a sample size similar to Boston’s (39 companies versus 46), the Bay State doesn’t look so resilient in comparison. About 56 percent of companies on the West Coast (22 of 39) strengthened their financial position in the first half of the year, while just 33 percent of the companies in Boston (15 of 46) did that well.

Read on for a complete rundown of the financial position for all 46 Massachusetts companies, listed in alphabetical order. To purchase a much expanded version of this report, in PDF format, click the “Add to Cart” button below. The expanded version, available for $95,* includes an assessment of each company’s financial position at the end of June compared to six months earlier, the projected length of time it can survive on its existing cash reserves, and an analysis of the strategic moves it has made to stay afloat in the current environment. Click here to see a sample entry. *Price is subject to change without notice.

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We intend to repeat this analysis regularly to monitor the financial health of the life sciences companies we follow in San Diego, Seattle, and Boston. Please send feedback to [email protected]

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