Egea Biosciences Inc.'s expertise comes close to the making of "designer proteins."
CEO Glen Evans said that what combinatorial chemistry has been able to do with small molecules, San Diego-based Egea has been able to do with proteins.
Evans not only was one of the co-founders of Nanogen Inc., also of San Diego, he was the Eugene McDermott distinguished professor in human growth and development and director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
"Our group was one of the co-authors" of the 2000 study mapping the human genome, completing the government-funded version of the Human Genome Project.
As the funding dried up for the Human Genome Project, Evans decided he would move outside the world of academia and into the biotech business world. He founded Egea in 2000.
"I had been on the sidelines of biotechnology, and it was never my intention to leave academics entirely," Evans said. But he also readily admits that leading a small biotech company is "so exciting and such a dramatic change from academic life."
The speed at which the company operates, in addition to the direction it can take, are all advantages.
Plus, he said, "It is much more straightforward to raise investment funds than it is to get grants."
Fortunately for Egea, the federal government decided to offer the company about $3.5 million in grant money for equipment and infrastructure associated with the Human Genome Project as it was being formed.
Since then, the company has raised a little more than $10 million, with the remainder of its funding coming from corporate collaborations. Evans noted that he was actually in the enviable position of being able to "turn down" venture funds that were available late in 2002.
In mid-April, Egea reported that it had formed an exclusive research collaboration with Centocor Inc., a Johnson & Johnson company based in Malvern, Pa.
"The collaboration with Centocor is across a whole variety of disease areas and drug categories," he said, noting that includes new proteins and monoclonal antibodies.
Financial terms of the collaboration were not disclosed.
One of the reasons Egea is able to concentrate on designer proteins is due to the technology spun out of the Human Genome Project, Evans said.
"Writing in that same code, we are engineering human proteins in a way that's never been possible before," he said.
And the company can "very rapidly generate a very specific library of variants" to proteins that might make them better, for example, by being more efficacious. Egea's two platforms are GeneWriter and Protein Programming, which is a way to produce large protein libraries with directed changes, with an emphasis on a directed rather than a random process.
"In addition," the company said, "proteins developed using Egea's technology can be manufactured in bacteria or any other host, avoiding the significant manufacturing challenges and expense found with most current protein drugs produced in mammalian cells."
Egea's business model involves producing protein-based drugs while entering collaborations with other companies for which it may be able to improve existing drugs.
And while it may be awhile before the company is in the full throes of clinical trials, Evans' estimation of being 18 months away from the clinic is a position he'll happily take for his young company. Deals with other companies provide the funding necessary for Egea, which has 36 employees, to pursue its own projects.
In its beginning, the company also sold genes on almost a fee-for-service basis, something Evans described as "a very poor business" because it is "a commodity-based business" that offers only small margins.
"The real [value] is that we make things that have never been invented before," Evans said. "It's a very intentional business model that we've chosen," he said, adding, "It's the drugs that have an immense value."