Flexion Snags Pfizer Bucks, Three Pharma Deals, For New Drug Model

Flexion Therapeutics is a little company built on the idea it can steer through early clinical trials in a faster and cheaper way than a lumbering Big Pharma giant. Now the Woburn, MA-based startup, founded by a pair of Eli Lilly veterans, has secured backing from four major drugmakers to put the idea to the test.

The world’s largest pharma company, Pfizer, has agreed to pump in $9 million in venture financing to Flexion, bringing the startup’s total Series A financing to $42 million. Flexion is also announcing today that it has secured partnerships with U.K.-based AstraZeneca, Germany-based Merck KGaA, and one other unnamed drugmaker. The mission will be to run early-stage clinical trials on four drug candidates that have been sitting on the shelf at the bigger companies, to see whether they have potential to treat inflammatory diseases.

We first broke news on Flexion back in October when the company raised money from Versant Ventures, 5AM Ventures, and Sofinnova Partners. The biotech, which pronounces its name FLEK-shun, is, like the name suggests, focused on bringing drug candidates to a value-creating “inflection point.” Flexion’s founders, Mike Clayman and Neil Bodick, built their reputations doing that at an incubator in Lilly called Chorus. The model there, as with Flexion, was to take raw drug candidates and design fast, cheap, elegant experiments that would demonstrate they have what it takes to go to the later, more expensive stages of development.

Drug development, of course, is a horrifically inefficient, time-consuming, risky, and expensive business. An estimated one out of every 10 drugs entering clinical trials ever makes it all the way to FDA approval, and the development process takes a decade or more and costs more than a billion dollars on average—depending on whose figures you want to believe. Regardless of the actual math, pharma is crying out for ways to increase its batting average in clinical trials, and lower its costs. So Clayman and Bodick found plenty of interest in Flexion, and ultimately had “in-depth” talks with 10 major drugmakers from the U.S. and Europe, Clayman says.

Mike Clayman

Mike Clayman

“What we offered them was a track record that says we’ve done this before, and if they outlicense their products to us, they will be in good development hands,” Clayman says.

The plan is to take “de-prioritized” early phase assets of a pharmaceutical company and seek to turn them into diamonds in the rough. Sometimes these drugs have been put on the back burner because the pharma company dropped out of an entire disease category, or went through budget-cutting that forced it to place its bets on drugs in the more expensive, final phase of development.

Flexion isn’t afraid to make some pretty specific, and bold, claims about what it can do. Instead of investing three to four years and $15 million to $40 million in generating proof of concept for a new molecule, Flexion aims to use “compact experimental designs” to cut that time frame in half, while slashing the costs of proof of concept to as little as $3 million to $5 million.

The company only has six employees, and says it intends … Next Page »

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