A group of international researchers and investors have joined to form Miikana Therapeutics Inc., a company starting its own cancer drug discovery and development programs.

And it hasn't taken long for Miikana to take some early steps in the business world. Tuesday, the company named Scott Rocklage its executive chairman, less than a week after reporting its Series A round of financing for $4.25 million.

"Scott Rocklage is a great catch for Miikana," Dinesh Patel, Miikana's president and chief operating officer, told BioWorld Today. "With people like me and him jumping on board, it shows a high degree of commercial vision going forward for the company. It's clear that we are not wasting any time, and we want to make it a commercial entity sooner rather than later."

Rocklage, formerly CEO of Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc., remains chairman of the Lexington, Mass.-based developer of anti-infective drugs, where he has led various financings, including the company s initial public offering and other follow-on rounds. Patel's background also stems from the antibacterial market - he most recently served as the senior vice president of drug discovery at Versicor Inc., a Fremont, Calif.-based company that last year merged with Biosearch Italia SpA, of Milan, Italy, in a transaction valued at $225 million, forming Vicuron Pharmaceuticals Inc. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 1, 2002.)

Patel said venture capitalists linked him with Tak Mak, formerly a vice president of research for Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Amgen Inc. and the director of the Amgen Research Institute in Toronto. But after Amgen pulled its business back from Canada, Mak stayed behind. Now the director of the Advanced Medical Discovery Institute of the University Health Network's Ontario Cancer Institute and a professor at the University of Toronto, he brought biologically driven ideas to venture capitalists. Patel had pitched them on a chemistry-backed idea.

"These days, targets by themselves are just not enough, because people are after products and molecules," Patel explained. "But when you put the two stories together - Tak Mak's biology orientation and my chemistry orientation - you have enough substance to form a new company."

The pair formed Miikana late last year, also tapping Gail Eckhardt as a member of the founding team. Now the company's senior advisor for oncology drug development, she works as a clinical oncologist and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, where her lab has run more than 50 clinical oncology trials.

Patel said the financing would support operations for 12 months to 15 months, and he expects to supplement the opening venture capital round with an add-on investment in the next few months. Miikana remains based in Toronto, though Patel said the company would shift its headquarters to Fremont by the time a Series B round closes.

"The founders and the employees have gotten a decent valuation," he said. "For this day and age, we are very excited and feel that the investment community is going to have faith in our story and performance down the road."

The investment was co-led by 5AM Ventures, of Menlo Park, Calif., and Aravis Ventures, of Zurich, Switzerland. The financing also included the Novartis Venture Fund, of Basel, Switzerland, and Queensland Asset Management, of Hong Kong. 5AM founder Andrew Schwab joined Miikana's board in the process.

From the outset, the company plans to build its pipeline through programs focused on small molecules and antibodies, though its research is not yet directed toward a particular cancer. Patel said Miikana already is in late-stage discussions to partner a preclinical antibody program in which the collaborator would manufacture the product while Miikana would conduct additional preclinical studies. Its internal research will focus on small-molecule drug discovery and development, with three programs already under way. Attached to them is an expectation of reaching late-stage preclinical status by the end of next year.

Miikana also is actively pursuing plans to in-license preclinical and early clinical drug candidates.

"Right from the beginning, we decided that we must be product oriented," Patel said. "The company has to be focused on the products first, and everything else gets dictated from that point onward, whether it's a target, a new research program or an in-licensing opportunity. Everything has to start from the product end."

He added that the 11-employee company could engage additional partners on an as-needed basis as product development moves forward. In the interim, he expects Miikana to remain small in order to minimize overhead. Longer term, the company plans to continue with a small infrastructure, given the opportunity to outsource research and development activities.