Intellikine, Stocked With Cash, Pushes Portfolio of Drugs Against Biology’s Hot Targets

8/18/09Follow @xconomy

Intellikine has the kind of story you rarely see in 2009. Few biotech companies can rustle up $28 million in venture capital in this year of the Great Recession, especially when they don’t have a single drug candidate in human clinical trials. Either investors are having a bout of 1999-style insanity, or the company has something really intriguing under the hood.

That’s what I wanted to find out last week when I had a chance to talk in some depth with Troy Wilson, the CEO and co-founder of La Jolla, CA-based Intellikine. We broke the story in early July that Intellikine had collected the first part of a big round of venture capital, which could total as much as $51 million. The syndicate included Novartis Bioventures, Biogen Idec, FinTech Global Capital, US Venture Partners, as well as previous investors Sofinnova Ventures, Abingworth Management, and CMEA Ventures.

Intellikine, founded in September 2007, is best known for developing drugs to block what’s known as the PI3 kinase pathway, which controls critical cell processes like proliferation, migration, and cell survival. This has become one of the pharmaceutical industry’s hot targets, as researchers have shown the pathway is involved in both cancer and autoimmune diseases. Since these conditions affect millions of people, the field has attracted lots of competitors, many of whom are ahead of Intellikine in development. The list of rivals includes GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, and Roche, as well as smaller players like South San Francisco-based Exelixis and Seattle-based Calistoga Pharmaceuticals.

So what makes Intellikine special enough to grab this much investment in a downturn? A lot of it has to do with the startup’s own investment in basic biology to characterize the four different variants of the PI3 kinase pathway, combined with a prolific chemistry team that has created 1,500 different drug candidates to block those targets, Wilson says. That’s in contrast to other companies that may be further down the drug-development path, but have picked one or two horses to bet on, which may or may not have the best attributes for a drug, he says.

“We may not be first in class, but we want to be best in class,” Wilson says. “We wanted to look at every possible kind of inhibitor.” Keeping the options open for now is important, he adds, because, “We’re still learning about these targets.”

Intellikine CEO Troy Wilson

Intellikine CEO Troy Wilson

Much of what Intellikine is learning about PI3 kinase biology grows out of science from the lab of Kevan Shokat at the University of California, San Francisco. Shokat, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, is known for developing chemical techniques to better characterize the individual roles of kinases and the signals they send to cells. Intellikine combined that knowledge with Wilson’s business savvy (he’s a co-founder and former chief business officer of San Diego-based Ambrx) and technical expertise from a pair of scientists at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in San Diego—Pingda Ren and Yi Liu. Zachary Knight, now a fellow at Rockefeller University, was a fifth co-founder, and remains an adviser to the company.

The company’s first couple of years have been focused on building up a library of small-molecule drug candidates that are potent, selectively hit certain targets, and have good drug-like properties such as being soluble in the bloodstream, Wilson says. These compounds have been made to hit … Next Page »

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