Atara Bio Grabs $38.5M to Help Kidney Patients, Fight Cancer

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN) tends to scoop up entrepreneurial teams and plug their work into the mother ship, not spin out cool ideas and entrepreneurs. But a couple of experimental drugs from Amgen’s pipeline are getting new life at a startup called Atara Biotherapeutics.

Atara, which has headquarters in Brisbane, CA and operations in Thousand Oaks, CA, is announcing today it has raised $38.5 million in a Series B venture financing. New investors Amgen Ventures, Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG), and EcoR1 Capital joined the second round of financing, along with original backers Alexandria Venture Investments, DAG Ventures, Domain Associates, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Atara has now pulled in more than $58 million since its founding in October 2012.

Amgen didn’t invest in the original licensing deal to Atara a year ago, but it chose to invest like all the others in the Series B round, says Atara CEO Isaac Ciechanover. Amgen is getting no special product rights through its investment, he adds.

The idea for a company came from scouting work that Ciechanover, a former Celgene business development executive, did more than a year ago while he was a life sciences partner at Kleiner Perkins. As Amgen shuffled around its R&D portfolio under new CEO Robert Bradway, it left little budget room for an experimental “peptibody” drug for muscle wasting in patients on kidney dialysis. The same budget squeeze hit an internal Amgen drug candidate that seeks to inhibit a protein called activin, as a new way to fight ovarian cancer. So Ciechanover got a license to the molecules from Amgen, and rounded up a VC syndicate on the promise they wouldn’t have to wait a decade to find out if the drugs were any good. Now Atara has the loot to gather data to find out whether these drugs work in human beings.

“Our goal is to build a standalone comnpany, and data to give us great confidence in these programs,” says Ciechanover, pictured above. “With our investor base, we think we can define our destiny.”

Carol Gallagher, the executive chair of Atara, added: “The company is developing interesting assets that are clinical stage, so the company has a good probability of creating significant value over the near-term. I was also particularly intrigued with the increased understanding of activin as a therapeutic target in cancer, particularly in ovarian cancer.”

Part of what’s also unusual about Atara is its business model. The company has structured itself as a central holding company that oversees a handful of limited liability companies (LLCs). This way, Atara can license out a single asset or sell it off to an acquirer without having to sell the whole company, or try to interest an acquirer in a whole bunch of other assets or people it may not want.

Atara isn’t the only company that’s trying … Next Page »

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