Optimer Shares Soar Amid Reports of Buyout Interest

4/2/13Follow @bvbigelow

Reports that several big pharmas have shown interest in buying Optimer Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: OPTR) sent shares of the drugmaker soaring about 20 percent today in Nasdaq trading that was more than four times the company’s recent average daily volume. By late afternoon, Optimer was trading near $14 a share, after gaining $2.31 a share in the morning.

The list of prospective buyers reportedly includes GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK), AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN), Cubist Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CBST), and Japan’s Astellas.

Optimer’s headquarters moved to Jersey City, NJ, late last year from San Diego, where the company was founded and where much of its operations remain. In late February, Optimer disclosed that board chairman and former Pfizer CEO Henry McKinnell would take over as CEO from Pedro Lichtinger, who had resigned, along with Optimer’s general counsel. The company also disclosed it was considering a possible sale, and had hired Centerview Partners and JPMorgan Chase as strategic advisors.

Optimer hopes to attract a buyer willing to pay as much as $1 billion, according to a Bloomberg report this morning that cites two unnamed sources familiar with the situation. That would be a premium over Optimer’s market valuation, which climbed above $660 million today.

The company introduced the antibiotic fidaxomicin (Dificid) for treating intestinal infections caused by C. difficile bacteria in the U.S. market in 2011. Analysts estimate that sales could hit $400 million a year, according to Fierce Pharma, although Optimer recently reported that fidaxomicin generated almost $75 million in sales for the company in 2012.

A buyout offer for Optimer would likely attract a flurry of merger arbitrage activity as hedge fund managers place their bets on the likelihood that a deal would actually go through.

As McKinnell told analysts and investors in February, Optimer informed civil regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission and criminal authorities at the U.S. Department of Justice that the company had uncovered possible violations of federal law, including the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The problems apparently stem from a stock grant involving Michael Chang, a co-founder and Optimer’s former chairman. The company disclosed last April that seven of Optimer’s eight directors voted to strip Chang of his role as chairman, and asked for his resignation from the board. The company also fired two Optimer executives.

The company has not provided many details about the nature of the federal investigations, or the extent of the problems uncovered last year, but potential buyers will certainly be asking those questions as buyout talks move ahead.

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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