Acucela Cuts Staff, Shifting Focus to Development of Eye Disease Drugs

Xconomy Seattle — 

Acucela’s good news wasn’t so good for everybody. Less than a month after it struck a lucrative new partnership with Tokyo-based Otsuka Pharmaceutical to co-develop drugs for eye diseases, the Bothell, WA-based biotech company has cut almost a third of its staff.

Acucela cut loose “fewer than 10 employees” from its payroll, out of a previous total of about 30 employees, said Jennifer Cook Williams, a spokeswoman for the company. The cuts, which include scientific jobs, came just a couple weeks after Acucela signed a deal with Tokyo-based Otsuka that brought in $5 million in cash upfront and milestone payments worth as much as $258 million if its drug for a form of macular degeneration reaches certain goals in development. Acucela has also picked up responsibility to seek FDA approval of another Otsuka drug in the final phase of clinical trials, so it’s an especially busy time for the small company.

Why make these cuts when the business is gaining momentum? “Acucela has found themselves in the fortunate position of having two Otsuka deals, which include a very active clinical program with a Phase 3-stage product,” Williams said in an e-mail. “They are now focused on growing the development strength of the company through careful strategic hiring.”

Over the next two years, Acucela plans to double its workforce. The company will look to hire people with expertise in things like clinical trials and regulatory affairs—a different set of skills than those possessed by its scientific staff. Getting shown the door after doing a good job—it’s just another sign that biotech can be one very tough business.