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Innovimmune Pursues Pharma Partners, Shuns VCs

When Anderson Gaweco started his biotech company in New York in 2010, he planned to follow the standard entrepreneurship blueprint-for-success and pursue venture capital financing. But the more Gaweco learned about the two compounds his company had developed to treat autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, the more convinced he was he didn’t need VC financing. “We are ready for pharma partners right now,” Gaweco says.

Biotech-Big Pharma partnerships are not uncommon in life sciences these days. Pharma companies need to bolster their pipelines with innovations from biotech startups, and the startups need the cash to help turn those inventions into marketable drugs. But usually biotech entrepreneurs wait until they have compelling data—from early-stage human trials, or at least from animal studies—before they try to convince any deep-pocketed partner to take a bet on them.

Not Innovimmune. Gaweco’s startup is looking for pharma partners even though it hasn’t locked up its patent portfolio or even completed animal trials of its two drug candidates. In industry parlance, it is “pre-IND,” meaning it hasn’t yet filed an “investigational new drug” application with the FDA to begin human trials. That means Innovimmune is counting on a partner to sign on before it has any hint of whether its drugs might work in people.

So why is Gaweco so confident? The answer lies in the company’s two lead programs. The first drug, called INV-17, is in an emerging class of compounds called ROR-gamma modulators. ROR-gamma (retinoid-related orphan receptor-gamma) is a receptor inside the nucleus of cells that regulates the production of proteins that have been implicated in several inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis. Unlike most treatments for these diseases, which are injections, INV-17 is a small molecule, which means it could be taken as a pill.

Innovimmune’s second compound, INV-88, is also a pill. It inhibits a second protein important in inflammatory and autoimmune diseases called MIF (macrophage migration inhibitory factor). On June 13, Innovimmune won a $600,000 Advanced Technology Small Business Innovation Research Grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund its MIF research.

Both MIF and ROR-gamma have been hot targets in pharma for a while, Gaweco says, but what sets Innovimmune’s approach apart from the competition is its approach to drug design. While most companies take existing compounds and run them through high-throughput screening machines to see if any of them hit the desired targets, Innovimmune designs chemical compounds from the ground up to hit those targets in the most desirable ways. For example, … Next Page »

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