A Sweet Deal: How Amira Reinvented Itself as a Drug Discovery Engine

12/23/11Follow @bvbigelow

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clinical studies, the business entity could be packaged for sale to big Pharma or retained by Inception Sciences.

The new model is at least partly the result of a push at Menlo Park, CA-based Versant Ventures, to find new ways to start and fund life sciences startups, according to Clare Ozawa, an associate at Versant Ventures who recently joined Inception Sciences as chief business officer.

“We really are an operating company built around a drug-hunting team,” Ozawa says. Before starting Amira, she says Prasit, Evans, and Hutchinson had worked together at Merck on the successful development of montelukast sodium (Singulair), the drug used to treat asthma and seasonal allergies that generates $4 billion a year in revenue.

Clare Ozawa

“They are an exceptional drug discovery group with extraordinary drug-hunting capabilities,” Ozawa says. “They are particularly good at pouncing on biological insights that are important in new disease areas.”

The concept of building a company around a core discovery group goes against the grain for most institutional investors, at least nowadays, according to Panmira’s Kumar. Before Inception Sciences, Kumar says, “No one in their right mind considered a ‘discovery engine’ as a bankable investment.” It would take too much time and money to reach the later stages of development, when a drug’s value becomes better established.

Ozawa says Versant’s Brad Bolzon was willing to help bankroll Inception Sciences, especially after it became clear that Bristol-Myers Squibb would acquire Amira. Because the buyout was so big, Ozawa says investing in Panmira became kind of a freebie—akin to leaving a few chips on the table after claiming your winnings.

Prasit’s team also was widely respected. The same group had been successful in developing new drug compounds at both Amira and Merck, according to Kevin Kinsella of San Diego’s Avalon Ventures. “They’ve had more success developing effective, non-toxic, high PK [pharmacokinetics], nano-molar binding drugs and new chemical entities than I’ve seen anywhere else in 30 years in this business,” says Kinsella, whose firm also invested in Amira.

But the formation of Inception Sciences as a discovery engine is really only part of a more holistic story, according to Kumar. He says Amira began taking a comprehensive approach to spinning out its different drug development programs at least 18 months before the Bristol-Myers Squibb buyout was announced.

When Prasit, Evans, and Hutchinson came together to start Amira in 2005, Kumar says the research group was basically starting from scratch, with “almost no intellectual property.” Within a few years, Amira’s R&D group had identified a number of promising … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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