Sequel Pharmaceuticals’ CEO on How to Start a Biotech and Sell it For a Bundle, and Repeat
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to block multiple ion channels that are thought to be related to heart rhythm. Another generic drug, amiodarone, has been shown to be effective through this multi-ion channel mechanism, although that drug is toxic, Woods says.
Sequel isn’t saying much about the data it has to prove that its drug can be effective without the toxic side effects of the generic. The Sequel drug is currently in a study designed to select the right dose, which should generate results by the end of this year, Woods says. If the data are positive, the company will be out raising money to run a pivotal trial. This is doable for a company as tiny as Sequel, because it will initially focus on a few hundred patients with acute disease, and it won’t need to show the FDA data from thousands of patients followed over the long-term to assess their “outcomes.” With an acute drug, patients who are rushed to the hospital with racing hearts can be given an IV drug, and measurements can be taken within hours to see if it’s bringing their heart rhythm back to normal. Sequel is also working on an oral treatment, the kind that’s more suitable for chronic conditions, but that’s the bigger arena where a pharma partner (or acquirer) would have to get involved.
Woods figures the market for the acute drug is probably worth $500 million a year, while the oral drug could generate $1 billion to $2 billion in annual sales.
That’s not too shabby if this kind of value can be created by just nine people operating a virtual company that leans heavily on outsourced contractors. This model certainly has its critics, who generally don’t get that excited about how it usually requires plucking a drug off some other pharma company’s shelf and trying it for a new use that hasn’t been fully explored.
But to hear Woods tell the story, he likes being lean and mean. Earlier in his career, he worked at big companies like Boehringer Mannheim, and the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, before he spent eight years as CEO of Corvas International, a more traditional R&D-based biotech in San Diego. Corvas had 120 employees at one point, but eventually ended up getting acquired by Seattle-based Dendreon, which really took over it over just to scoop up Corvas’ cash.
“If you have a hiccup or a delay at a bigger company, you have a big building, and 120 people working for you who are college graduates, with a burn rate that’s still high, even though you’re not creating value,” Woods says. “Our burn [at Sequel] is very low. We make decisions quickly. We’re nimble.”
It’s also laid back, just the way Woods likes it. He insisted that I wear a T-shirt on my visit to his office, because, well that’s how he was dressed, and he likes it that way. Since he doesn’t report through some out-of-town Human Resources bureaucracy, they can do what they want.
“Fewer people equals fewer problems,” Woods says. “There are no office politics.” And yes, of course, being small means being allowed to dream big. “The Sequel will be better than the original movie,” Woods says.