Amira Mixes Small Biotech Irreverence, With Big Pharma Rigor, To Create New Lung Drugs

1/28/10Follow @xconomy

Amira Pharmaceuticals looks and feels like a typical small biotech company, with the sort of irreverent sense of humor that you don’t often find at a Big Pharma shop. While CEO Bob Baltera showed me around the Amira offices on my last visit to San Diego, he opened up a storage room where employees had stashed away some belongings.

There was an old turkey baster, next to a bench press.

“That’s how we burn off a few calories around here before Thanksgiving,” Baltera cracked.

Amira may be able to joke around and have fun, but it’s actually borrowed more than a few pages from the old Big Pharma drug development playbook. The company was founded in 2005 by three scientists—Peppi Prasit, Jilly Evans, and John Hutchinson—who worked together for years at Merck before the giant pharma company closed its San Diego operation. As I described in a feature last March, they played important roles in developing montelukast sodium (Singulair), the asthma drug that generates $4 billion a year in revenue, and they resolved to try to do it again at their own company in San Diego. They’ve had some success already, raising a little more than $28 million in venture capital, building a staff of 50 employees, and scoring a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline.

But what I found most interesting when I met with Baltera was how Amira has combined some of the best cultural features of biotech and pharma in one place. That means while softball trophies are one prominent display of how the team literally plays together, Amira also insists on being a little extra careful and cautious, like a Big Pharma company, when it comes to building a body of evidence to support new treatments.

Bob Baltera

Bob Baltera

What does that mean? For one thing, Amira scientists identify not just one lead drug candidate to block a particular target, but they identify a lead and backup contender that generally follows six months behind in development. That way if a safety issue emerges with the lead candidate, the entire program won’t have to go in the trash. And by running experiments on both molecules, Amira hopes to answer whether the problem was in picking a dangerous target, or whether it was just something with the molecule that needs a minor tweak. From a business perspective, this means Baltera isn’t betting the company on a single molecule, which biotech startups often do.

“We try to sell a drug development program, not a molecule,” Baltera says.

This definitely costs more money, significantly more, to run simultaneous clinical trials of different molecules, Baltera says. He concedes that investors have occasionally asked why the company really needs to spend money on two candidates instead of one. Amira hasn’t really had to aggressively defend the strategy during the downturn, because the Glaxo partnership has provided enough support that it hasn’t had to raise money since Baltera arrived in July 2007. But he insists that going the extra mile mitigates … Next Page »

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