Provid Pharma Leans on MS Society’s Venture Fund to Boost Lead Drug

4/12/12Follow @arleneweintraub

North Brunswick, NJ-based Provid Pharmaceuticals could be a case study in biotech bootstrapping. The company, founded in 2001, had been subsisting largely on angel funding, grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Small Business Innovation Research arm of the U.S. government, and an early collaboration with San Diego-based Sequenom (NASDAQ: SQNM). Then, in 2009, the tiny biotech caught the attention of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in New York, which invested in Provid through its venture philanthropy fund, Fast Forward.

That investment is starting to yield dividends for Provid. In May, the company will release data on its lead drug to treat MS at a conference of the American Association of Immunologists in Boston. The data, from experiments done in cellular models, is still very early—the company is about a year away from filing to the FDA for permission to run its first human trials, says Gary Olson, co-founder and CEO of Provid. Still, without the money from the MS Society, which included a second tranche in 2010, it’s unlikely Provid would have gotten this far, Olson says. “Because we’re such a small company, we really are relying on external resources to fund this project,” he says.

Financing from disease-related organizations is becoming an increasingly important source of support for young biotechs. At Xconomy’s biotech forum in Boston on April 4, Rick Winneker of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society said his organization is supporting 400 research projects, including several in biotech and pharmaceuticals. Other not-for-profit organizations that invest in drug-development programs include the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Timothy Coetzee, president of the MS Society’s Fast Forward, says his organization started its fund in 2007 to fill a gap in life sciences financing. “Our sense was there were programs like Provid’s that were in early pre-clinical development, but were challenged by the Valley of Death,” Coetzee says, referring to the period when companies are too advanced to secure federal funding but still too young to generate interest among venture capitalists. “We see ourselves using philanthropic capital to move programs forward.”

The drug that the MS Society is fostering, called PV-267, was designed as a completely new way to fight the disease. PV-267 targets proteins expressed by a group of genes called the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC). These MHC proteins are expressed on many cells in the body and are vital to normal functions. But in about 60 percent of MS patients, some MHC molecules go awry: … Next Page »

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