My head is spinning from the whirlwind of presentations and hobnobbing at this year’s Life Science Innovation Northwest. The regional biotech showcase drew by far the most people in its 11-year history, almost 1,000. More importantly, folks I talked to from outside the region were impressed with the technology here, combined with the community’s can-do spirit.
It could just be that everybody is breaking out of their shells after many years of being beaten down, but whatever it is, there was a really strong vibe at this year’s regional biotech conference.
“You don’t see anything quite like this in the Bay Area,” said Brian Atwood, a managing director at Menlo Park, CA-based Versant Ventures, who I sat next to at lunch on Wednesday.
That’s not to say everything’s peachy. There’s still no IPO market to speak of, the regulatory barriers at FDA are daunting, many VCs are fading away, political and legal uncertainties dog the patent system, and Big Pharma has been, shall we say, stingy in how it values new technologies.
All that said, there are plenty of hungry entrepreneurs out there brimming with optimism about what’s ahead for their companies in 2011. Here are some tidbits I gathered on a handful of interesting small companies at the conference, who often fly below the radar.
—PhaseRx. This Seattle-based company, a spinoff from Patrick Stayton’s lab at the University of Washington, is creating new polymers to help deliver RNA interference drugs to the places they need to go in cells. PhaseRx raised a $19 million Series A venture round in February 2008 from Arch Venture Partners, 5AM Ventures, and Versant Ventures—and has said very little publicly in the three years since.
RNAi is one of the hot fields of pharma R&D, because it has the potential to specifically silence genetic targets of disease that are inaccessible to traditional small-molecule drugs, or protein therapies like antibodies. Delivering these small, interfering RNA molecules has been the primary challenge for this field, since a plain RNAi molecule basically gets chewed up by enzymes and flushed through the kidneys in minutes.
Lots of ideas are percolating to improve RNAi delivery, and one of the more promising is up the road at Vancouver, BC-based Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, which uses lipid nanoparticles to help keep the siRNAs stable in the bloodstream long enough so they can hit the desired target. PhaseRx has taken a different tack, making polymers.
PhaseRx CEO Bob Overell, a former partner at Frazier Healthcare Ventures, says his company has been working these past three years to show that its polymers can be manufactured in a scalable, reproducible manner—which is vitally important to any prospective Big Pharma partner. The company has shown its delivery system can specifically hit an undisclosed genetic target of interest in mice, that it can make the drug accumulate in tumors, and that anti-tumor responses get better at higher doses.
This year, PhaseRx expects to enter into a “major partnership” with a Big Pharma company to license rights to the delivery technology, Overell said. The company will explore co-development opportunities as well, he said.
One thing Overell didn’t mention in his slidedeck was his existing cash position. He wouldn’t comment on where PhaseRx stands financially, but it sounds like he’s planning for a cash infusion. He said he plans to hire a VP of business development, and … Next Page »