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Pacira and Histogen Disclose Layoffs, Optimer Advances Diarrhea Drug, Torrey Path Comes to Town, & More SD BizTech

Xconomy San Diego — 

Between President Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress and California’s jobless data reported Friday, economics dominated the news last week. We saw the effects with a couple of layoffs here in San Diego’s innovation community, along with news about local startups, clinical trials, and new technologies. Read on!

The unemployment rate in California hit 10.1 percent in January, providing a sobering backdrop for the student-managed Disciplines of Engineering Career Fair at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering. UCSD engineering students were sensing the worsening job market before the state jobless data was reported Friday, but a survey of corporate recruiters attending the job fair offered some encouragement. About 40 percent of the corporate recruiters say they plan to hire the same number of full-time engineers in 2009 as they did in 2008.

—Speaking of unemployment, two San Diego life sciences disclosed layoffs last week. Pacira Pharmaceuticals, which markets two approved sustained-release drug delivery products, laid off about 40 employees after a setback in its development of a new product for treating post-surgical pain. The staff reductions represent about 36 percent of Pacira’s workforce.

—Histogen CEO Gail Naughton told me the life sciences startup laid off all 36 of its employees at the end of January after a funding crisis erupted. A group of angel investors withdrew their planned $2.4 million investment in Histogen at the end of January, after learning that a local rival company, Carlsbad, CA-based SkinMedica, had filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Histogen.

—San Diego-based Optimer Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: OPTR) reported encouraging results from a second key clinical trial of its antibiotic pruliflxacin, which successfully killed pathogens that cause traveler’s diarrhea in people visiting India, Guatemala and Mexico. The trial shows the drug is effective in treating a wide array of intestinal pathogens, and helps reduce the business risk as Optimer continues forward with its drug development plans.

—Ambrx and German pharmaceutical giant Merck KGaA announced a new partnership to co-develop a drug for treating multiple sclerosis. Although the life sciences companies did not disclose financial terms of the alliance, Luke gained some insight from Ambryx CEP Steve Kaldor.

—Onetime information technology consultant Peter Dresslar of Ann Arbor, MI, told me he’s moving the headquarters of his startup company, Torrey Path, to San Diego. After the story appeared, Dresslar told me he prefers using the word “biodata” instead of “bio-informatics” in describing the complex scientific data that Torrey Path provides to life sciences companies. Biodata, though, generally refers to biographical data and not biological data.

—San Diego-based QUASAR has developed sensor technologies that are sensitive enough to detect the electric fields generated by lighting in tunnels deep underground. Working mostly under small business innovative research grants from DARPA and other government agencies, the QUASAR group of companies has made significant advances in low-frequency, room-temperature electromagnetic sensing systems.

—After trolling the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, shallow and deep, in search of natural microbes that might be useful in treating autoimmune disease and cancer, Nereus Pharmaceuticals is now working on two drug candidates for treating cancer. Luke says the startup has raised $125 million in venture capital from big name investors like Roche Venture Fund, Alta Partners, and San Diego’s Forward Ventures, among others.

—Wall Street hammered shares of specialty drugmaker Somaxon Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:SOMX) Friday, after the company disclosed the FDA rejected its application to market a new drug for insomnia. The price of Somaxon stock fell 80 percent, from $2.14 a share at Thursday’s close to 44 cents a share Friday.

—Cypress Bioscience (NASDAQ: CYPB), which recently won FDA approval of adrug for fibromyalgia, acquired diagnostic technology for autoimmune diseases like lupus from Cellatope, a Pittsburgh, PA, startup, in a deal valued at $5 million.

—The San Diego Venture Group provided an upbeat ending to the week by naming three local companies for their breakout performance in 2008, despite the mounting economic challenges as the year progressed. The breakout companies were chosen for their success in technology, life sciences, and cleantech. The respective winners were The Active Network, Novalar Pharmaceuticals, and Sapphire Energy.