GlycoFi Figures Heavily into Drug Giant Merck’s Follow-on Biologics Plans

4/23/09

We’ve seen it before. A large pharmaceutical company buys a small biotech firm, the acquired startup ships its science and technology to the big buyer, and we never hear about the little company again. But GlycoFi, a Lebanon, NH, life sciences startup acquired by U.S. drug giant Merck for $400 million nearly three years ago, seems to be an exception. It’s grown up since the acquisition and is now the focal point of Merck’s strategy to become a major force in the business of making copycat versions of biotech drugs.

Whitehouse Station, NJ-based Merck (NYSE:MRK) revealed in December that it had launched a follow-on biologics unit called Merck BioVentures, capitalizing on GlycoFi’s recombinant yeast technology, to enable the company to develop copies of protein-based drugs faster and cheaper than the competition. And many of the special yeast strains that Merck BioVentures will use to produce the biologics will be engineered right at GlycoFi’s Lebanon laboratories, Barry Buckland, vice president of bioprocess research and development at Merck, tells me. Merck is also using the GlycoFi technology, he notes, to develop novel drugs.

“Certainly there’s a clear effort to keep the [GlycoFi] group strong and make sure they have the resources they need to be productive,” says Buckland, who has overseen the integration of GlycoFi’s technology into Merck’s vast operation. In addition to investing in improvements to the GlycoFi technology, he says, the operation in New Hampshire has grown from 54 employees to roughly 66 workers since the 2006 acquisition.

It’s common for the innovation community’s interest in biotech startups like GlycoFi to wane after they are acquired or cease to exist as independent entities. For those of you who don’t remember GlycoFi, Dartmouth College bioengineering professor Tillman Gerngross founded the company in 2000 and engineered a handsome return for venture investors such as Polaris Venture Partners, SV Life Sciences, and Borealis Ventures. (In February, Gerngross pointed out the GlycoFi labs to me while giving a brief tour of the incubator building where the group still operates and where he has located his newer biotech startup, … Next Page »

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