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.”
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 each of the four major variations of PI3 kinase, as well as combinations of them and other molecules in the pathway, he says. Out of that library of 1,500 different candidates, Intellikine has now chosen four lead molecules with potential to advance further in its pipeline.
One reason Intellikine has been able to focus on basic science and drug discovery, and cast such a wide net, is that it can do so relatively cheaply. The startup, which has 22 employees, generated that library of compounds through a partnership with a 15-person company it helped establish in Shanghai, China, called Chemikine. Pingda Ren, who got his chemistry doctorate in China, has served as a critical liaison in managing that San Diego-to-China collaboration, by typically working the phone to Shanghai 2-3 hours to keep everything running smoothly, Wilson says.
“It has been a remarkably productive partnership,” Wilson says. “A lot of people go to China for cost reasons, but we went there for quality as well as cost.”
The new money will now go toward advancing the four chosen drug candidates forward to where more value is created, in clinical trials. The lead molecule, INK128, actually isn’t made to block the PI3 kinase itself, but another target further downstream in the pathway called the mTORc1/2 complex, Wilson says. That drug candidate has shown effectiveness against cancer in multiple animal models and is being prepared for its initial clinical trial within 12 months, he says. Behind that in the pipeline, Intellikine has a drug made to block two of the PI3 kinase subtypes as a way to treat inflammatory diseases and cancer.
Intellikine will look to advance those products without significantly expanding its staff, by contracting out much of the work and looking for help from partners when needed, Wilson says. “We need to be very efficient with our cash,” Wilson says.
That’s a recurring theme we’ve seen. Calistoga raised $30 million back in May, and said it wasn’t going to hire more staff either, to be careful to make sure the money lasts. “We’re fortunate in that we were founded in a difficult environment, and it has affected how we’ve built and run the company,” Wilson says. “We need to show some human proof of concept on one or two programs with the money we raised. If we do, then we can go to the next level.”
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