Despite the tough public financing environment, venture capitalists are more than willing to dole out the dollars to support good ideas, good science and good management.
Atlas Venture, for instance, still has roughly $300 million in a fund for life sciences companies. MedImmune Inc., of Gaithersburg, Md., recently announced a $100 million fund for biotech. And Boston-based Venture Investment Management Company LLC (VIMAC) is just starting to raise money for its first biotech fund.
In the same year that the public markets have seen huge downward swings, 2002 just might be the second or third record year for biotech venture capital investments. The top year, of course, was 2000.
So the money is out there. Potential cures for diseases and other preventive technologies are pouring out from data derived from the human genome project. The entire practice of medicine is entering a new era. But as the founder of a young start-up biotech company knows, the science goes only as far as the money that supports it.
Investors want the name the well-renowned researcher who came up with the idea, and a manager who has a history of putting their money to work for them. They want results from people they already trust and unfortunately, that sometimes shuts out the underdog who may just have a blockbuster cure on hand, but no recognizable name.
"You would like to back people who have shown in their careers that they have successfully built companies and can categorize ideas or other things around them," said Peter Barrett, a general partner at Atlas Venture in Boston and the co-founder and former executive vice president and chief business officer of Celera Genomics Group, of Rockville, Md.
"I think at the end of the day it really is management seasoned managers who have done it before who have a track record. That's what early stage VCs want," said Dana Ono, a director with VIMAC and a founding director of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council Inc. "You know 100 percent that a venture is going to hit roadblocks. The seasoned guys who have run it before are the ones who have been very resourceful."
A perfect example of a start-up biotech company that was able to grab the attention of venture capitalists is Boston-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, which this month disclosed $17 million in Series A and B financings with Polaris Venture Partners, ARCH Venture Partners and Atlas Venture. The company is a leader in RNA interference-based therapeutics in which a natural cellular process combats viral infections by degrading the viral genetic message before it can produce a protein. Among the company's scientific founders is Nobel laureate and Biogen Inc. founder Phillip Sharp.
"It's a good example of what, in an ideal world, [investors] would want," said Jean-Francois Formela, a general partner at Atlas Venture.
Despite investors' close watch of the seasoned managers and well-known scientists, Ono said that VIMAC specifically looks for the unknown entrepreneurs who may have a blockbuster product on their hands. VIMAC can bring the network of seasoned managers and experience to the venture if the need is there. That way good science does not have to be shut completely out of the game.
"It's very, very rare to find an individual who has never done it before in this very difficult game of building a biotech company who is able to do it from day one and be very successful at it," Ono said.
One such exception, however, is Joshua Boger, the chairman and CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., of Cambridge, Mass. Boger was a scientific founder of Vertex and the former senior director of basic chemistry at Merck Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories. He still heads Vertex 13 years after its inception.
But Barrett and Formela say that there is not an overabundance of experienced management in the field of biotech, and even really good science is not enough to attract some investors.
"There's a lot of good ideas," Barrett said. "But to wrap that around the capital and the right management team is a challenge."
"You have to be careful," Formela added, "that the supply of capital is matched to the supply of people who can actually put it to work."
Some of those people are already working in profitable companies, and some have plenty of work keeping their public companies afloat without worrying about starting new ones. The poor market, Formela said, has influenced the business models of companies that once were capital-intensive. Company officials are looking for ways to spend less money, he said.
Some, like Seattle-based Targeted Genetics Corp. and Rockville, Md.-based EntreMed Inc., are cutting jobs and delaying projects in order to focus on programs that hold the most value. As H. Stewart Parker, Targeted Genetics' president and CEO, said: "We can't guarantee that we can go back and raise money in the future and we don't see what triggering event, from an economic standpoint, is going to turn the stock market around. The key to success in biotechnology is survivability, so we felt it appropriate to prune the organization."
A younger company may have a totally different approach. Boston-based Infinity Pharmaceuticals Inc., for example, raised $70 million in June in Series B funding led by Advent Venture Partners, of London. The oversubscribed offering likely will sustain the company until an initial public offering.
Biotech companies that are unable to raise enough venture capital dollars often find themselves turning to pharmaceutical companies to help fund their ideas. The pharmaceutical companies, in turn, need the biotech companies to supply them with new, innovative products, as many of their blockbusters are losing exclusivity rights.
"When companies were able to raise a lot of money they were more focused internally on product platforms," Barrett said. "What you see now is [plans] to reduce the capital intensity. They're now looking for collaborations or partnerships where they can get others to offset some of their burn rate."
That interdependency between the two industries has always been there, Ono said, but now biotech companies have far more leverage because they have the products. Partnering with pharmaceutical companies, however, is not always easy. In order to maintain double-digit growth, the companies are merging with each other, so there are fewer of them out there with which to partner.
"Everybody's knocking on the same doors so it's very difficult," Ono said. "It's Darwinian. It's basically natural selection. And that's not a bad thing because it will weed out the frail and the ones who may not have a strong position."