Innovimmune Pursues Pharma Partners, Shuns VCs

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Innovimmune discovered certain binding points on MIF and then designed a small molecule that can specifically home in on those points, Gaweco says. He believes that will help boost INV-88’s potency while lessening the chances it will produce untoward side effects.

A rash of early-stage deals in life sciences has boosted Gaweco’s confidence that he, too, should be able to nab some lucrative partnerships. In March 2011, Plymouth, MI-based Lycera signed a $300-million-plus deal with Merck (NASDAQ: MRK) to develop ROR-based compounds for autoimmune diseases. And last December, Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) entered into a $217 million research pact with Swedish biotech Karo Bio that was centered around ROR-gamma.

Gaweco also hopes to impress Big Pharma with his out-of-the-box approach to drug development. Rather than concentrating on getting one drug approved for one disease at a time, Innovimmune plans to pursue several development tracks simultaneously. For example, the company is studying the potential of INV-17 in nine different diseases, all of which are somehow affected by ROR-gamma. Gaweco justifies that approach by pointing to the fact that once patents are issued on a novel drug, a company generally has no more than 20 years to capitalize on it before it becomes vulnerable to generic competition. “Once in a while you get a golden egg,” he says. “Don’t waste the opportunity to get the most bang for your buck.”

Gaweco’s approach to entrepreneurship and drug development was shaped by more than a decade of working in Big Pharma. After receiving his M.D./Ph.D in immunology, Gaweco went to work in 1999 for AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN), where he helped launch the blockbuster heartburn drugs esomeprazole (Nexium) for heartburn and rosuvastatin (Crestor) for high cholesterol. He then moved on to Pfizer, where he served on the development team for a drug in an emerging class called JAK3 inhibitors, which is now in late-stage development to treat several autoimmune diseases. Gaweco went on to stints at Roche and Lifecycle Pharma before deciding to strike out on his own.

Innovimmune has just eight employees and is based out of an biotech incubator in Brooklyn operated by State University of New York. Gaweco knows his startup is at the stage when most would seek VC funding, but he’s sticking to what he refers to as his “very cowboy” strategy of looking for pharma partners instead. “There’s a drought in pharma,” he says. “Maybe we could be a nice poster child for Big Pharma reinventing itself.”

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