Biotechs Raise Capital, the Tale of Four Finns Who Helped Pioneer the Web Browser, Qualcomm Takes Another Step in Its Corporate Succession, & More SD BizTech News

Xconomy San Diego — 

It’s hard for any company to raise capital in this recession, but several San Diego life sciences startups disclosed last week they had done just that. A few bright spots also appeared during a local seminar on mergers and acquisitions—so let the news light your way.

—A big deal on the other side of North America last week may bear some significance for San Diego’s Anadys, which has been developing a new treatment for hepatitis C. Cambridge, MA-Vertex Pharmaceuticals said it was buying ViroChem Pharma of Laval, Quebec, for about $375 million. Vertex, which has about 200 employees in San Diego, is adding some punch to its own hepatitis C drug by acquiring ViroChem.

—Qualcomm took another step in its succession plan last week when CEO Paul Jacobs added board chairman to his title, a job that was held by his father, Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs. The San Diego wireless chipmaker also disclosed that Paul Jacobs and company president Steve Altman took 25 percent pay cuts last month when the company froze the salaries of all employees.

—In an unrelated development, Qualcomm recently acquired the key assets of Digital Fountain, a Freemont, CA, startup that has developed software to optimize digital media transmitted over any network. The assets include a team of seven engineers led by Digital Fountain’s founder and CTO.

—The lore of technology innovation is replete with stories of iconic hits and misses, of Googles and Pets.coms. Xconomy added a new chapter to the literature last week with a tale about Erwise, an Internet browser invented by four Finns before Netscape changed the online world as we know it. It also was the first Xconomy story written by Juha-Pekka Tikka, a veteran newspaper reporter from Helsinki who is Xconomy San Diego’s Innovation Journalism Fellow through June.

—Regulus Therapeutics, the Carlsbad, CA-based joint venture formed in 2007 by Alnylam (NASDAQ: ALNY) of Cambridge, MA, and Carlsbad’s Isis, got $20 million in a first step toward independence. Alynlam and Isis each contributed $10 million to Regulus, which has developing microRNA-based drugs and now intends to continue that work as an independent company.

—A new life sciences company has come to light in San Diego. Evoke Pharma has been developing a new drug treatment for diabetic gastroparesis, a gastrointestinal disorder. Evoke Pharma has been operating in stealth mode since it was founded two years ago, but a financial filing that surfaced recently shows the biotech has raised almost $12.3 million in venture funding since 2007.

—While the overall market for mergers and acquisitions remains gloomy, John Stiska of Agility Capital says he sees a few signs of encouragement. Stiska, who spoke last week at an M&A workshop in San Diego, says mid-market equity funds are still buying stable, well-run companies. And Stiska says small-to-mid-size defense contractors throughout Southern California represent ideal targets for acquisition.

—San Diego’s Optimer Pharmaceuticals, which has two antibiotics for treating diarrhea in late-stage clinical trials, raised $32.9 million in a registered direct offering to institutional investors. Optimer (NASDAQ: OPTR) says it plans to use the proceeds for ongoing drug development and general corporate purposes.

—Lou Ryan, chairman of San Diego’s St. Bernard Software (OTCBB: SBSW) has stepped in as CEO with plans to expand the company’s line of Internet-filtering network security products. I spoke with Ryan, a software industry veteran and former venture partner at Menlo Park, CA-based Sand Hill Capital, about the firm’s new strategy.

—Jay Lichter, a San Diego venture capitalist and founder of Otonomy, told Luke his goal is to someday make the specialized drug developer for hearing disorders as big as Alcon, the Swiss eye care company. One of Otonomy’s early drug candidates is aimed at Meniere’s disease, an imbalance of inner ear fluid.