Ensemble Quietly Amasses Cancer Drug Pipeline, Scouts for New Deals

Xconomy Boston — 

It’s not often that a biotech startup can go more than eight years without a big funding round, but Ensemble Therapeutics has been able to do so, thanks to some early success stringing together drug discovery partnerships. But with the Cambridge, MA-based company now churning out drug candidates of its own, its bills—and financing needs—are about to escalate.

Ensemble is best known for developing a library of synthetic macrocycles—molecules intended to combine the properties of small-molecule drugs and antibodies to access tough-to-reach biological targets—and using it to land industry partnerships with the likes of Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. These were drug discovery deals; partners identified drug targets they were interested in, and Ensemble combed through its library to find macrocycles that might hit those targets in a meaningful way.

That strategy enabled Ensemble, founded in 2004 as Ensemble “Discovery,” to survive on $43.5 million in total equity financing, the last large $15 million chunk of which it collected in a Series B in 2007. CEO John Ripple (pictured) won’t say exactly how much revenue Ensemble has generated, by comparison, through its deals—just that it’s been “far in excess” of the equity the company has raised. The most recent infusion came last week when Ensemble hit an unspecified milestone in the Alexion (NASDAQ: ALXN) deal.

As with most any strategy, Ensemble’s approach has pros and cons. On the positive side, the company has been able to chug along on a relatively small investment (by biotech startup standards), generate cash without further diluting its investors’ stakes, and establish some credibility in the industry. But on the negative side, Ensemble is now 12 years old and hasn’t provided any investor returns, be it from an IPO or some type of merger or acquisition—all of its partnership dollars have been put back into the company. Additionally, by focusing largely on drug discovery deals, Ensemble wasn’t  “placing bets on our own in-house targets,” Ripple says.

“Drug discovery is analogous to gambling, and we were essentially relying on our partners to place the bets and select the targets that we would pursue,” he says.

As a result, Ensemble, over the past few years, has begun … Next Page »

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