With an opening financing round worth up to $16.5 million in hand, Kemia Inc. charged out of the gates and is fast approaching the first turn in drug discovery.

The milestone-based Series A round provides Kemia with an undisclosed portion of the total potential amount of $16.5 million, funding it expects to spur early development efforts. The San Diego-based company is banking on rapid growth - Kemia said it expects to submit at least one compound for clinical trials in the next 24 months. But in biotechnology's past, the path of developing small molecules that effect protein-protein interactions hasn't led to a high rate of success.

"So what gives us the confidence that we can do it so rapidly?" asked acting Kemia CEO Jeff Sollender, who also is a managing member of lead investor Forward Ventures. "The answer to that is that there are some core scaffolds that the company is working on that are quite proprietary and we know work."

According to Edward Roberts, just named Kemia's chief scientific officer, a number of the scaffolds have already shown proof of concept. Through the use of chemical scaffolds, Kemia expects to develop high-affinity small-molecule leads against clinically validated targets for which there are clinical results from already marketed or late-stage compounds.

"We're not working on new targets," Sollender said. "That would add another element of risk that we don't want to take at this point in the company's life."

Kemia is developing molecules that use targets, identified through the mapping of the human genome, to orally treat indications that to date have been treated solely through injections. It began synthesizing molecules in late June.

"We make sets of compounds that don't exceed 50 at a time, and in our first run against our target, we made roughly 15 compounds," Sollender said. "Those 15 compounds have already been tested and each one of them showed a hit on the target, in a matter of weeks. We already know that half of those compounds acted as stimulators and half acted as inhibitors."

The funding will be used to further its compounds into clinical testing.

"We're thinking a first tranche of money would come into the company and get us into Phase I trials, and also allow the company to engage in at least one, as I would define it, moderate corporate partnering relationship with large pharma," Sollender said. "The second tranche, we would hope, would get us all the way into Phase II, hopefully even enable us to generate the Phase II data and get us into a large corporate partnering relationship."

Roberts, hired to lead the company's drug development efforts, said Kemia expects to internally develop its first set of compounds through Phase IIa testing. Kemia's early research efforts are focused on developing a disease-modifying rheumatoid arthritis drug, a treatment for viral infections such as HIV and a drug to treat osteoporosis.

"We know exactly the markets we're going for, we know exactly the kinds of clinical trials we want to produce and we know exactly the animal models we need to develop to take forward these molecules," said Roberts, who most recently worked as the senior vice president and head of discovery chemistry for F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd., of Basel, Switzerland.

Given such groundwork, he said Kemia's aggressive timeline isn't farfetched.

"The time scales are not too dissimilar from what you'd find in big pharma, once you have a starting point," he said. "We are able to expedite a lot of the later-stage work because we don't have to develop new animal models. We don't have to invent new clinical trial regimes, simply because we're looking at areas where there are already medicines on the market or to be released within the next two to three months."

Kemia was founded by Tamas Bartfai and Julius Rebek, both with The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, and Andy Hamilton, the chair of the chemistry department at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

In addition to San Diego-based Forward Ventures, other investors include San Francisco-based Alta Partners and the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Texas Pacific Group. Since its May opening, Kemia has hired 21 employees, including 16 chemists. The privately held firm said it expects its staff to grow to 60 by the end of next year.

Among new management hires, Kemia this week named Jan Lundstrom its vice president of biology. Lundstrom most recently headed the pharmacokinetic program at AstraZeneca plc, of London. Maria Walker, the chief financial officer at Forward Ventures, will serve as Kemia's acting chief financial officer.