03 Jun BIO 2008: State biotechs hope to build on Roche, Pfizer momentum
Madison, Wis. – Wisconsin biotech’s connection to “Big Pharma” are likely to grow stronger as state companies emphasize business development during the 2008 BIO International Convention in San Diego.
The state will have a diverse contingent at the four-day event, which convenes June 17-20 in San Diego, one of California’s life science hotbeds. Forward Wisconsin, in public-private partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, is taking the lead in the state industry participation. In all, 13 Wisconsin companies will make presentations to investors and others, and state officials like Gov. Jim Doyle and Commerce Secretary Jack Fischer will be hold a series of meetings with investors to remind them of Wisconsin’s strength in this area.
The primary focus, however, will be to continue driving strategic alliances and partnership opportunities between Wisconsin and pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer. In this look at state participation at BIO, WTN spoke to state officials and executives from three companies – EraGen BioSciences, Invivosciences, and NeoClone Biotechnology – that plan to drive business development at the conference.
The Pfizer effect
Perhaps the best example of Wisconsin’s growing links to “big pharma” was Roche’s $272 million acquisition of Madison-based NimbleGen. That appears to have whetted the state’s appetite for more alliances, and it’s no secret that Pfizer is the next target.
It was at BIO 2007 in Boston that state representatives convinced Pfizer to visit Madison for a first-hand look, and that contact has led to a commitment for quarterly meetings with state biotech firms and serious talks with at least four Wisconsin companies.
During Pfizer’s 2007 trip, seven members of the company reviewed 40 Wisconsin biotech businesses, seeking expertise in several areas, according to Mickey Judkins, administrator of investment and exports for Commerce. “They eventually interviewed 20 companies and they are in negotiations with four or five companies. They feel very strongly that Wisconsin is very involved and important in biotechnology.”
Although the University of Wisconsin-Madison annually attracts more than $900 million in research dollars, has a leading technology transfer arm in the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and can boast of scientific talent like stem cell research pioneer Jamie Thomson, the fact that one of the top pharmaceutical companies in the world is interested in the discoveries coming out of the state’s biotechnology businesses also speaks volumes, according to Judkins.
She believes it will speak volumes to others in big pharma. “We’re working with quite a few,” she said, “and it gets a lot of interest from other companies when they see the number one company in the industry negotiating with Wisconsin.”
In all, the Wisconsin pavilion at BIO will feature 54 companies and institutions, including stalwarts like Promega, Scientific Protein Labs, and WARF, which has a West Coast office in San Diego.
The 125 Wisconsinites attending BIO will be doing more than manning booths, they will be seeking to strengthen their business positions, and they will be looking to gain exposure among the more than 20,000 people and 2,200 companies in attendance.
Representatives of the Madison-based EraGen BioSciences will present at the conference. The company manufactures and sells molecular diagnostic products to clinical diagnostic laboratories, including a platform chemistry to improve the accuracy of DNA- and RNA-based tests for the early detection of infectious diseases and genetic conditions. Miguel Blanc, vice president of corporate development for EraGen, is the man in charge of identifying business strategies and external partnerships, collaborations, joint developments, licensing agreements, and financing.
That’s exactly what he intends to do at BIO, as the company looks to gain exposure to potential partners in the area of biomarker discovery, pursue international distributorship opportunities (at the moment, its sales are entirely domestic), and meet with new and existing investors to attract another round of venture capital.
EraGen, which raised $12 million in venture capital in a single fund-raising round in 2006, has received $21 million thus far in venture investment and various government grants and loans. At BIO, its existing investors will introduce Blanc and others to prospective new investors.
EraGen, which has 45 employees at its Madison facility, has 11 products on the market, most having to do with the detection of viruses that cause infectious diseases and sexually transmitted diseases. One of its diagnostic tools, a product called Respiratory Virus Panel, is designed to rapidly detect up to 17 respiratory viruses at once.
Blanc said these initial targets would bring EraGen’s addressable market to $50 million, but future targets like hepatitis and transplantation would increase the market size to $230 million, and additional future targets like cystic fibrosis and bleeding disorders would ramp it up to $800 million.
EraGen markets itself as the “new era” in molecular diagnostics, and Blanc will use his opportunities at BIO to convince prospective partners of the superiority of its assays for real-time PCR and multi-plexing. PCR refers to polymerase chain reaction, a technique used in molecular biology.
The products are available, he said, in a molecular diagnostics market that is growing at a 25 percent annual rate. “It’s a very attractive market segment,” he noted, “and EraGen has the right technology to take advantage of it.”
Invivosciences has an interesting story to tell potential business partners. The McFarland based company, which was spun out of the Medical College of Wisconsin and maintains a lab in Wauwatosa, engineers tissue-based assays that mimic functions of living organisms, including animals and humans.
The products are used in drug discovery and life science research, and one of its more promising applications is cardiac therapeutics. Invivosciences is developing an assay to screen drug candidates for the treatment of heart muscle damaged in heart attacks.
The company notes that 38 percent of heart attack survivors will die within one year because fibrosis, or abnormal thickening of heart valves, often develops and alters the mechanical performance of the heart. Invivosciences is working with academic labs to develop a therapeutic option – miniaturized engineered heart tissues – to study this condition, which leads to heart failure. These tissues can maintain their physiological or pathological properties for weeks or even months to help researchers understand the mechanics of fibrosis development.
“Our niche is in the cardiac area,” noted Ayla Annac, co-founder of Invivosciences, “but I think our technology can be used in other clincial areas that study mechanical functions.”
Armed with these scientific ambitions, Annac and her colleagues are seeking joint business and product-development opportunities with large pharmaceutical partners. Annac sees potential collaborations for drug testing because the company’s technology can be used, in the cardiac realm, in primary and secondary screening, lead drug identification, optimization, and testing for false positives in cardiac toxicology studies. Annac said these capabilities can save pharma companies money early in the drug-development process, a message Invivosciences will bring to BIO.
Invivosciences is one of two Wisconsin biotechs – Primorigen being the other – invited to present before a select group of 250 companies. “It’s a great opportunity for us,” Annac said of BIO. “We’re honored to be picked to present our testing platform.”
For NeoClone Biotechnology, connecting with international customers and prospective new customers is an imperative. The company, which produces monoclonal antibody products used by researchers, has clients in 30 countries and roughly 40 percent of its sales are international.
“It’s one of the big reasons for attending, and it’s becoming more so every year,” said CEO Deven McGlenn, who will be attending his fourth BIO conference. “It’s true that when you get a chance to shake a customer’s hand, you have a good chance to stick in their mind when they need your services.”
NeoClone, spun out of University of Wisconsin-Madison research in 1999, has developed a patented technology to produce monoclonal antibodies, which bind to substances in the disease detection process, in an accelerated time frame. The company is working on some important projects, having landed a total of $1 million in federal funding to develop a test to improve the detection of ovarian cancer.
At BIO, McGlenn intends to attend only one session – the annual Ernst and Young industry outlook for the forthcoming year. Otherwise, he will take advantage of the rare chance to meet with as many of his international customers as time allows.
“We don’t compete with the guy down the block,” he said, “we compete internationally.’
High Throughput Genomics, Inviragen, Invivosciences, Madison Gas & Electric, Marshfield Clinic, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee County Research Park Corp., Milwaukee Economic Development Corp., Neoclone, Planet LLC, Promega Corp., Quarles & Brady, Reed Sendecke Krebsbach, Restaino & Associates Realtors, Scarab Genomics, Schroeder Solutions, Scientific Protein Laboratories, SciLog, Thrive, the National Stem Cell Bank, University of Wisconsin – Madison Office of Corporate Relations, UW-Madison Office of Clinical Trials.
UW-Madison School Medicine/Public Health, University Research Park, UWM Research Foundation, Waisman Clinical BioManufacturing Facility, We Energies, Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek, WiCell Research Institute, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative, Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association, Wisconsin Department of Commerce, Wisconsin Office of Energy Independence, and the Wisconsin Technology Council.
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