Steve Reed is following a tried-and-true road map for building a biotech company. First year, build the team. Second year, gather some data to support the founding idea. Third year, prove it in clinical trials. Then start coaxing Big Pharma to open up its checkbook and do deals.
“This is when it gets exciting,” Reed says. “That’s just what happened at Corixa.”
Reed was talking about the growth strategy at his latest startup, Seattle-based Immune Design. The company made news yesterday when it raised $32 million in its second round of venture financing, from a big name crew of investors outside the Northwest—ProQuest Investments, The Column Group, Alta Partners, and Versant Ventures.
Immune Design was founded with an $18 million venture round from the last three investors a little more than two years ago, in June 2008. The company’s vision is to create a new generation of more specific, potent vaccines. In theory, these vaccines could provide lasting protection against infectious diseases with a single shot, or could be used to re-direct the power of the immune system toward an internal invader like cancer cells.
The technology builds on research from the Caltech lab of Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, who created a viral vector that makes it possible to specifically stimulate dendritic cells of the immune systemare known for sending sentinel warning signals about pathogens throughout the immune system. That targeting ability is being combined with synthetic chemical compounds called adjuvants, which boost the effectiveness of vaccines. These adjuvants from Reed’s lab at the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI), when combined with Baltimore’s precise delivery system, offer an opportunity to trigger highly potent and specific immune responses in the body, as I described in yesterday’s breaking news story.
Immune Design plays its cards very close to the vest, so I was eager to stop by Reed’s office yesterday for a download on the company’s progress the past couple years, and what enabled them to raise a healthy sum like $32 million.
Reed, of course, has been here before. He founded the nonprofit IDRI in 1993 to pursue his dreams of fighting global health scourges. Soon thereafter, he connected with Immunex co-founder Steve Gillis to start a for-profit venture, Corixa, with the idea of raising private money and bringing business discipline to some of his vaccine work. Corixa struggled to market its lone cancer drug, although it successfully developed adjuvants that are now incorporated into GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccine for cervical cancer, marketed as Cervarix. Corixa was ultimately sold to pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline for about $300 million in 2005.
While Corixa went away, Reed went back to innovating in the adjuvant world with his team at IDRI. The earlier generation of adjuvants, known as MPL, were made from natural products, which made them a little more tricky and expensive to manufacture. The next step was to isolate the specific component of the MPL compounds that appeared to be closely related to sparking an immune response, and then make that component through a synthetic chemical process that would be cheaper, consistently reproducible, and scalable. That technology was went into Immune Design, through what it now calls GLA.
Like in the early days of Corixa, Reed sensed … Next Page »