Sunday, February 26, 2012

Read this!

Will New Business Models Enhance or Endanger Drug Discovery?

A great thought piece by Stewart Lyman at Xconomy, well worth a read. Lyman analyzes the business models that have generated biotech "wins," and concludes that the current vibe is that VCs are oriented towards creating limited, focused companies (tending towards virtual) instead of the ambition a decade or more ago to built fully integrated drug discovery operations.

This reflects the fact that the end consumer (in this case the pharma companies that buy successful or promising therapeutic programs) wants to buy specific assets and nothing else. Lyman doesn't mention it, but this is as much due to the fact that the public markets are closed for any venture with less than half a billion in valuation. 

(This is mostly due to 2 reasons:

-the fact that Sarbanes-Oxley imposes costs on smallish companies that make it impractical for companies of <$500M to be public. In yet another example of regulation trying to close the barn door after the horse has escaped (see also: Dodd-Frank Financial Reform), Sarbanes-Oxley has killed the US IPO market for small to mid-size companies.

-while $100M-$500M in capitalization for a young company may seem large to you and me, it is a tiny number to Wall Street, making analyst coverage unreasonable, and not profitable enough to justify underwriting efforts.

(end rant))

Since VCs can only get liquidity from pharma acquisitions of their investments, companies are not being built to last, but rather built to flip. At the same time, the size of seed VC investments has risen, so biotech  start-ups need to have a quick use of $5-10M in seed capital AND a clear path to liquidity. Gone will be the days where therapeutic assets slowly incubate via SBIR funding (and other non-profit vehicles.)

(Luckily CROs now enable quicker and less expensive R&D. Young biotech companies don't need to build and staff non-core departments in order to progress a lead compound.)

The problem with this model as I see it (and not emphasized in Lyman's article) is that the smallish, asset-lite "disposable" biotech model now in vogue is absolutely terrible for anyone on the day-to-day team at the biotech company. Sign on to one of these "lite" companies and you take a GIGANTIC career risk. 

Scratch that - it's not a risk if something is practically guaranteed - and unless you believe your compounds and company will smoothly grow and progress from discovery to phase III without a hiccup at any stage, you almost certainly will go through restructuring, replacement, or a reduction of one form or another.

To the VC, each $5M biotech investment is a bet with a 1:20 likelihood of payout, but with a 50X payout with a win. The VC wants to take 40 "shots on goal" with their $200M VC portfolio, with the probabilities suggesting 2 "wins" worth a total of $500M.

To the scientific and business staff, though, that means that there's only a 5% chance that their specific efforts will result in a profit. With these odds, a career in academia, at a big pharma, or at a CRO looks a LOT less risky.

So until someone comes up with a business model for VC investment that ISN"T built to flip, start-up biotech's will have a hard time attacking the talent they need to run rings around big pharma. It seems strange to suggest it, but perhaps VC needs to be mindful of the business case for talent, not just for ROI.

Personal note: my opinion is also based on my experience starting a therapeutic discovery start-up.  It was a great experience, but the risk/reward math is just not favorable for biotech employees, and I won't ever work in early stage therapeutics again, if I can help it.

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