West Coast Editor

Say "genomics tools company" and watch how fast most investors close their wallets. But downstream technology - such as Vitra Bioscience Inc.'s equipment for parallel screening of multiple cell types - is another ball game, and the deep pockets apparently are hearing Vitra's message loud and clear.

Privately held Vitra, of Mountain View, Calif., raised $5.5 million in its second round of financing to advance its CellCard System and the CellPlex Assays that CellCard enables, introduced at the beginning of this year.

"We're focusing on the big pharma companies interested in analyzing their new compounds for selectivity," said Andrew Whiteley, Vitra's president and CEO. "It's all about trying to find ways of avoiding the failure rate in the clinic, which hits about 90 percent of compounds. Almost a third of these are what are called off-target effects, or side effects."

Asked about pharmaceutical clients, Whiteley said Vitra is "not publicizing those relationships at this time," but the financing is intended to help the company get more.

"We're very much focused on delivering this platform to big pharma across the board," he said, noting that the deals are nonexclusive.

"In the end, you can talk about the theory of these targets and compounds, but you have to take a complex biological system and figure out what effect the drug is going to have on that tissue," Whiteley said, calling Vitra's methodology the best way to do that on "any sort of automated or industrial level."

Formerly known as Virtual Arrays Inc., the company was founded in 2001 by Lev Leytes, whom Whiteley described as a "serial entrepreneur." Leytes was the main founder, chairman and CEO of LJL BioSystems Inc., of Sunnyvale, Calif., which in 2000 merged with Molecular Devices Corp., also of Sunnyvale. He is chairman of Vitra's board.

Whiteley most recently was chairman and CEO at InforMax Inc., a supplier of informatics software to the life sciences industry that was sold to Invitrogen Corp., of Carlsbad, Calif.

Vitra, which one year ago moved into a 21,000-square-foot building, employs a staff of fewer than 50 employees, Whiteley said, including software developers, engineers and biologists. The name change from Virtual Arrays took place in May 2003, when Whiteley took over as CEO.

"Biotech companies are also interesting to us [as customers]," he said, although prospects "tend to be the larger biotech companies. It's really anybody involved in screening these large compound libraries."

Vitra has an "evaluations for sale" program, he added. "Companies provide us with cell lines and compounds of interest and we run them in-house" as a trial, which is more effective than "shipping off expensive equipment and doing a lot of hand-holding long distance."

Developing more precisely aimed cancer therapies, like those that have been much in the news lately, and reducing the blow-up rate in the clinic are linked projects, Whiteley noted.

"The way you reduce the slaughter in the clinic is by choosing the right compounds to put in the clinic in the first place," he said. "You really don't know what the human response to a drug is going to be. These [cancer] compounds by their nature are toxic, and the side effects have, in many cases, dramatic effects on your target patients. We're running cell-based assays to predict those effects."

The financing's proceeds also will go toward expanding Vitra's product line. Whiteley told BioWorld Today the firm expects to be working with primary cells - those taken directly from patients for assays.

"We will assay many different drugs against different patients. This will be a breakthrough capability," he said.

Alta Partners, of San Francisco, acted as lead investor with additional participation from Sofinnova Ventures, also of San Francisco; Mediphase Venture Partners, of Newton, Mass.; and Three Arch Partners, of Portola Valley, Calif.

Alain Couder of Sofinnova is joining Vitra's board, along with David Mack of Alta, who replaces Dan Janney of Alta. John Freund, of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Skyline Ventures, resigned from the board but continues as an adviser. The total number of board members remains seven.

Whiteley called the financing "a great vote of confidence" from investors, but declined to estimate how long Vitra can operate on its current cash.

"We're not making any statements on those lines," he said.

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