By Brady Huggett

Big Bear Bio Inc., a company more focused on the bio in biotech than the tech, raised $5.1 million in its first round of financing to fund development of its five products.

"Many companies in the business forget about the biology," said Yoshi Kumagai, president and CEO of Big Bear Bio. "That is why we are focused on the biology area. Biology is the most important thing to us."

The round was led by Life Science Venture Fund, of Tokyo, which invested $4.8 million.

Kumagai started Big Bear, of Austin, Texas, in 1992. Kumagai worked in Japan with Kirin Brewery Co. Ltd., then came to the United States in 1985 to work with Amgen Inc., of Thousand Oaks, Calif. The company subsisted financially by doing contract work for biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies in the early years, putting everything it made back into its own research efforts, Kumagai said.

When Big Bear Bio first started - Kumagai choose the name to keep the words gene and tech, or any perversions thereof, out of its title and to accentuate the focus on biology - it focused on kidney and bone disease. From there it accrued its five products.

Marine Peptides, a series of molecules created from the biological mechanism of seashell formation, are aimed at systemic use in treating osteoporosis. In a postmenopausal osteoporosis model, oral administration of low doses of Marine Peptides demonstrated efficacy in increasing bone mass and mechanical strength, with no adverse effect such as ectopic calcification.

The product Dentonin is an endogenous small peptide that has shown bone-forming activity. Its main clinical target is dental disease, associated with damage to teeth, alveolar and/or jawbones.

Leukocyte Immobilizing Peptide is a small synthetic peptide that suppresses skin inflammation by modifying inflammatory cell trafficking in and out of skin tissues. Big Bear plans to develop it for treatment of atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis and other inflammatory skin diseases. It may also be applicable to other diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, Kumagai said.

Big Bear Bio and its collaborators cloned the gene for Phosphatonin. Phosphatonin might be used to treat hyperphosphatemia in chronic renal failure patients, and subsequently renal osteodystrophy. Big Bear has started manufacturing Phosphatonin and plans to develop it as one of its leading products.

Rickenon is an endogenously generated hormone that selectively increases blood phosphate levels and increases blood levels of the active form of vitamin D. Big Bear plans to use this hormone to fight rickets, post-transplantational hypophosphatemia and loss of bone mass.

Big Bear and Kumagai have plans for these products in the months to come.

"In the next 12 to 18 months, we will focus on our product development by ourselves," Kumagai said. "But we also will be looking for corporate partners for some of them. We are looking to partner two or three of our five products. We are already in discussion with a few companies. Our target is within six months [to sign a deal], but we are not sure of that. These kinds of things take a long time."

Big Bear Bio plans on filing investigational new drug applications for its products sometime in 2001.

"Theoretically, it is possible to file for all five of our products," Kumagai said. "That may change based on our financial situation or partnership situation."

The $5 million-plus gives Big Bear breathing room, but Kumagai said a second financing round should follow, and then perhaps the transition to a public company.

"Probably we will have a second-round financing at the end of next year or the beginning of 2002," Kumagai said. "We are trying to partner with major pharmaceutical companies interested in this area, and we might have another private round of financing between now and the end of 2001 if we find that right investor, but right now we have enough.

"And of course, after the second financing probably we will look to take this public. That's the most likely schedule."

Big Bear Bio is still in the early stages, with only five people on the payroll. But Kumagai said it is looking to hire on both the science and business side, with interviews being conducted now. "We are actively recruiting right now. Managing five products isn't easy, so we need more people."