Last year, consumer-products giant Unilever had a problem. The company wanted to make a meaningful impact in the ultra-crowded category of anti-aging cosmetics, but to do so, it had to come up with entirely new methods for fighting wrinkles. So it turned to Pennington, NJ-based startup BioLeap, which has developed a technology platform that helps scientists assemble new chemical molecules based on the likelihood that they’ll hit specific targets. “A million different things might cause wrinkles,” says BioLeap’s CEO David Pompliano. “We need to figure out those targets and then use a pharmaceutical approach to design molecules that work specifically against them.”
BioLeap was founded in 2004 with a new approach to “computational chemistry”—a method chemists use to predict whether experimental molecules will be effective against the targets they’re designed to hit. Computational chemistry has long been used in industries ranging from pharma to agriculture to energy. BioLeap’s technology seeks to improve upon those old methods by allowing chemists to build completely new molecules using the building blocks that are most likely to result in effective products. BioLeap has signed on a number of customers, including GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: BIIB) and agriculture-products maker Syngenta (NYSE: SYT).
What’s different about BioLeap’s approach is that it starts with tiny segments of molecules, and then calculates exactly where and how those pieces will bind to a target, such as a disease-causing protein. Chemists can then use that information to assemble the most effective building blocks into new molecules. Traditional drug discovery, on the other hand, often starts with already-assembled molecules, which are screened against targets in the hopes of finding one or two hits. “It’s hunt and peck chemistry—a bunch of random compounds hoping to hit the jackpot,” Pompliano says. “We’re trying to get away from all that.”
BioLeap recently signed two new deals, one in agriculture and one with a non-profit research institute, and it has deals pending in pharma and cosmetics, Pompliano confirms. (He cannot disclose the details until the contracts are announced.)
The new customers reinforce the confidence Pompliano felt when he joined BioLeap as CEO in early 2009. Pompliano first came across the company when he was the head of basic discovery in the anti-infectives unit at Merck (NYSE: MRK). “New antibiotics are not easily arrived at, so I was always looking for novel ways of finding new structures—drugs that would be really different from existing molecules,” he says. He liked BioLeap’s solution so much that a few months after leaving Merck, he joined the startup.
Pompliano’s top priority when he joined BioLeap was to improve the company’s marketing methods. At the time, BioLeap was working with Exxon on some energy projects, but it hadn’t made a dent in pharma, where Pompliano believed the biggest opportunities were. “I thought they weren’t making the proper pitch,” Pompliano says of BioLeap’s marketing team. “They didn’t have the strategic view of what pharma needed to do to improve the discovery process.” So he set out to revise the sales pitch, and to boost BioLeap’s credibility by publishing data it had collected from using its computational technology.
BioLeap has encountered plenty of skepticism from weathered pharma scientists. “One thing we hear is ‘Oh, we already do that,'” says Keith Mackay, VP of sales. “We have to take the time to explain all the different parts and why they can be valuable.”
BioLeap also has to contend with competition from other startups with similar technologies. For example, Cambridge, MA-based Nimbus Discovery is developing drugs based on computational tools that are designed to uncover the methods by which molecules bind to disease targets. Nimbus recently came out of stealth mode and raised $24 million in a Series A, which included money from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.
Pompliano’s plan is to pursue revenues from two sources. BioLeap is providing its technology through fee-for-service research collaborations. It is also using its technology platform to discover new molecules, which it plans to sell to pharmaceutical companies. For example, BioLeap is working on finding targets against PCSK9, a protein that prevents cells from being able to sweep cholesterol out of the body. Several pharmaceutical companies have been studying this target with the goal of developing new remedies for high cholesterol, including Tarrytown, NY-based Regeneron (NASDAQ: REGN). “If we could come up with compounds with different chemical structures, I think we would have a very easy time selling them,” Pompliano says.
BioLeap raised $5 million in a Series A in January 2010, which was led by Quaker BioVentures and Adams Capital Management. Pompliano says he has no plans to raise more venture funding. “The idea is to be able to do enough work with our collaborators to fund ourselves,” he says.