Protagonist Pulls in $14M, Led by J&J, For Peptide Pills

Not many companies know how to make peptide molecules that can be packaged in a pill, but Menlo Park, CA-based Protagonist Therapeutics just got a vote of confidence that it can pull off that nifty little trick.

The company is announcing today it has raised $14 million in a Series B venture financing that was led by a new investor, Johnson & Johnson Development Corp., and which included its existing investors Lilly Ventures and Starfish Ventures. The company, founded in 2007 by Australian scientist Mark Smythe and led by CEO Dinesh Patel, had previously raised about $9 million, bringing its total financing haul to about $25 million.

The money will go toward Protagonist’s R&D pipeline, which aims to make peptide molecules that can hit biological targets that have been previously inaccessible to conventional small molecules or larger engineered protein drugs. While peptide treatments have had some success in the market—the diabetes drug exenatide (Byetta and Bydureon), is an example—they are often difficult to make into convenient drugs, and typically have to be injected.

Protagonist, which I wrote about last July, has partnerships with Cambridge, MA-based Ironwood Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: IRWD), which has an oral peptide drug on the market for chronic constipation, and Copenhagen, Denmark-based Zealand Pharma. With the new financing in hand, Protagonist said in a statement it hopes to develop “multiple internal and collaborative clinical assets by 2015-2016.”

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