There’s a story going on in biotech venture capital, and it’s about a slow and painful death. Four years after the start of the Great Recession, and after a decade of too much promising and too little delivering, the majority of biotech VCs are struggling to stay afloat. Firms are shutting their doors, forcing partners out in brutal political battles, or quietly fading away as they fail to raise new funds.
This ongoing theme resurfaced in the past week, when I wrote about the demise of Kirkland, WA-based OVP Venture Partners, the $750 million venture fund that has been betting on high tech, biotech, and cleantech companies for 30 years. This firm, like many others, waited and waited for a home run to save its portfolio, but it never happened. For OVP, Mountain View, CA-based Complete Genomics (NASDAQ:GNOM) was the one that just never came through in the clutch.
Everyone in biotech venture capital knows other shoes about to drop like this. The VC industry has already contracted dramatically, as there were 1,022 active firms during the tech bubble year of 2000, and just 462 active firms were left in 2010, according to the National Venture Capital Association. The dropoff in biotech venture financing this year has been so dramatic that only about a dozen firms in the U.S. are left who can credibly claim that they are still active early-stage life science investors. The collapse of biotech venture capital has forced a generation of entrepreneurs to re-think exactly how to build biotech companies that can have more appeal to investors.
Bob More, a general partner with Frazier Healthcare Ventures, says he expects one-half to two-thirds of all the people who make a living in biotech venture capital are on their way out. “A lot of firms are teetering,” he says.
Naturally, a few firms will survive this historic contraction, and come out the other end quite strong. There is still plenty of great science happening. Some encouraging signs have come out of the FDA lately. The NASDAQ Biotech Index is up 36 percent year-to-date, more than double the 15 percent rise in the broader NASDAQ Composite. The venture investors who survive this tough stretch will surely be well positioned for years to cherry-pick the best company ideas.
So when a couple of biotech IPOs were completed last week, I was eager to dig into the filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission to get a read on which VCs stand to gain. The IPOs were for Calabasas, CA-based Kythera Biopharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: KYTH) and New York-based Intercept Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ICPT). These stocks both traded up significantly from their IPO price. Now that those two companies have joined the club, a healthy 11 of the 12 biotech IPOs this year have gone up, as of Friday’s close. The total number of IPOs so far this year already equals the number of IPOs in all of 2011.
Before diving into the table below of biotech’s 2012 IPOs, a few of the usual caveats are in order. Just because a VC firm invested in a company that went public doesn’t necessarily mean it will make money. Pre-IPO investors typically are barred from selling their shares for six months, a regulation that’s intended to prevent insiders from pumping and dumping shares on investors with less information on the company. Sometimes companies can thrive during the period when insiders are “locked up” (i.e. Complete Genomics) and then crash right before the VCs get the freedom to cash out. And sometimes VCs will keep their shares for years in a public portfolio company, holding out for what they think will be even bigger returns.
That said, here’s a tale of the tape for biotech IPOs of 2012, with a list of their biggest shareholders prior to their IPO, according to regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
|Company||Location||IPO Price||Last Close||Major Pre-IPO Investors|
|Merrimack Pharmaceuticals||Cambridge, MA||$7||$7.48||Fidelity Investments, Credit Suisse First Boston, Fred Alger Management, TPG-Axon Partners|
|ChemoCentryx||Mountain View, CA||$10||$10.80||Glaxo Group, Techne, OrbiMed Advisors, HBM Bioventures, Alta Partners, HealthCap of Sweden|
|Cempra||Chapel Hill, NC||$6||$7.34||I. Wistar Morris & affiliates, Intersouth Partners, Aisling Capital, Quaker Bioventures, Blackboard Ventures, Devon Park Bioventures|
|Verastem||Cambridge, MA||$10||$8.68||Advanced Technology Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, CHP, Longwood Fund, MPM Bioventures|
|Supernus Pharmaceuticals||Rockville, MD||$5||$12.88||New Enterprise Associates, OrbiMed Advisors, Abingworth Ventures, Shire|
|Durata Therapeutics||Morristown, NJ||$9||$9.47||Domain Associates, New Leaf Ventures, Aisling Capital, Sofinnova Ventures|
|Hyperion Therapeutics||South SF||$10||$10.53||Bay City Capital, Highland Capital Partners, Panorama Capital, Sofinnova Ventures, New Enterprise Associates, Ucyclyd Pharma|
|Tesaro||Waltham, MA||$13.50||$15.02||New Enterprise Associates, InterWest Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers|
|Globus Medical||Audobon, PA||$12||$17.63||Clarus Life Sciences, Goldman Sachs|
|Regulus Therapeutics||San Diego||$4||$4.21||Isis Pharmaceuticals, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Aventis Holdings, Glaxo Group|
|Intercept Pharmaceuticals||New York||$15||$19.05||Genextra, OrbiMed Advisors|
|Kythera Biopharmaceuticals||Calabasas, CA||$16||$19.10||Versant Ventures, Arch Venture Partners, Prospect Venture Partners, Jafco, Fidelity|
|–Source: Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Yahoo Finance|
You can see there’s a pattern here—New Enterprise Associates, OrbiMed Advisors, and Sofinnova Ventures are a few of the names that show up more than once. These funds have all raised big new funds for life sciences in the tougher financing era, post-2008. They’ll be fine.
With many of the others, you can bet there are plenty of people holding their breath about what the stock prices will look like when the lock-ups expire, if they haven’t already.
Given that none of the biotech class of 2012 have been absolute screaming home runs, it would be fruitless to hope that this group’s performance will somehow rescue the biotech VC industry just as it’s heading over the cliff. There are still fundamental weaknesses in the IPO market. VCs often need to buy a lot shares to prop up their portfolio companies during the IPO process, and only a very small cadre of public investors has any appetite for biotech IPO shares at all.
History says that a lot of people get burned when the IPO market gets overheated, and thankfully there’s no sign of that happening. If the market gets too hot, a lot of crappy companies are bound to make it through, end up crashing, and give the whole industry a bad name. But when the IPO market is too cold—like it has been past four to five years—it discourages people from starting companies and investing in new ones. Having an IPO market that’s getting somewhere close to balance is important, because it gives entrepreneurs hope, and VCs a chance to make money on their best investments. It also gives the little companies a little more leverage in their talks with acquirers. If acquirers know that small biotech companies have a chance to go public, then they might be compelled to sweeten their buyout offers.
What we’re seeing now is something that seems close to balance in the IPO market. That may not provide much hope for the battered biotech VCs out there, but it’s something. With a little luck, some of those VC firms in the chart above will get the lifeline they need to keep doing what they do for a long time.
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