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A New Biotech Funding Model is Critical to Survival of the Industry?


Posted by Richard Gabriel on Thursday, March 25, 2010 @ 2:00PM

By Richard Gabriel

So what's wrong with Biotech financing today? What will it take to bring the Biotech market out of the doldrums and back into action? If you are having trouble finding financing for your next greatest idea then the only comforting news is that you are not alone.

Venture capital technology assessments, which are advisory diagnostics we perform frequently, have revealed some interesting information. Unfortunately, when the biotech bubble first burst, right around the 9-11 time period, there were already a bunch of troubled venture capital funds. Most of these funds became challenged because the time horizon for their investment to mature is too short for the drug development cycle. Too many of these firms believed that the capital market was an exit strategy.  True, for some it was the best thing to do, and to a point it made sense for both company and investor - but not today. Following the market collapse and then the near fatal blow that the biotech market received along with the rest of the market, venture capital in the bio tech sector was and continues to be in a state of disarray. There are, however, a few funds that actually know how to make money in the biotech world.  The problem is they too are having trouble raising capital for their next funds. Overall the VC market is a nightmare for biotech with lots of rationalization expressed - too early, too late, not enough differentiation, to expensive, too long to market.  When all boiled down it shapes up as too many people that don't know how to develop a drug controlling the capital to one of America's brightest economic and social stars - medicine.

The trend for finding later stage products is so rapacious right now that VC funds are having deal flow problems. Everyone wants to jump on the band wagon, leaving the start up holding the ‘your too early for us' bag of hot air. Ask Pfizer what they think of late stage drug investment? They just dropped $215MM on a drug from Russia that showed great clinical efficacy in Alzheimer's patients in Russia and the surrounding areas and has been in use for over 10 years, and guess what? Bring it to the U.S. for clinical trials and it shows absolutely NO clinical efficacy against the placebo! Who said late stage drug development was lower risk? Somebody tell the Pfizer board.

For $215MM and some savvy investment types, Pfizer management could have invested in 10 start-up's at $5.0MM a pop and reserved $15MM each as the investments hit their milestones. Now granted the chances of a drug start up reaching the market is pretty low, but come on folks, $215MM will buy you a lot of entrepreneurial grease, commitment and energy as well as some damn good technology. In my book, I like the odds of the new technology over slumping something just because it is in Phase 2 clinical trials or worse as Pfizer found out. So much for due diligence. But why take the chance and invest in the ‘too early' crowd of drugs and technologies?

The new drugs being developed today are smarter because they will be tied to diagnostics to help physicians decide who should get the drug and who shouldn't. This new combination technology approach to drug approval could be a decidedly better approach to drug development then what most investors are doing today with their ‘closer to market' picks. Why is that the case? The FDA likes this approach, tie a diagnostic to a drug, prove the efficacy, and your going to get approved!

The long and the short of it is that in the biotech world the ‘valley of death' extends from Boston to San Diego and swings up to San Francisco and bounces its way across the globe to the Far East, Europe and the UK. The only people who seem to be getting all the money are the people in India, China and other places that are trying to eat the pharmaceutical and biotech industries' lunch in Europe and the U.S. with generics, biogenerics and more cut rate manufacturing suites than you can shake a stick at. Nothing wrong with that but hardly any one is paying attention to new technology.

Isn't it time we looked for a better financing model for Biotech products? We think so. Got any ideas? Let us know what you think might be a better way to fund Biotech!


Richard Gabriel is head of the Life Science practice at Sema4 Inc., dba Semaphore (, a leading global professional services provider of Private Equity funds-under-management and technology diligence services. Semaphore currently holds fiduciary obligations as General Partner for six Private Equity and Venture Capital funds and advises General and Limited Partners as well as Corporations around the world. Semaphore's corporate offices are in Boston with principal offices in New York and London.


"Got any ideas? 
Yup. One anyway. It's been described to me by more than one investor as "the Hollywood model". The big studios provide the facilities. Some are in-house, but mostly they are outsourced. The idea for the film is taken up by the Producer who assembles the film project and raises the money. A vehicle is put together for the life-time of the film, dispenses the costs to the facilities, the crew and the talent. The film studios and crew get paid to complete the project and they and the big talent get some mix of payment and equity stake. The vehicle owns the IP and other commercial rights and disburses the rewards to the shareholders (studio, talent and investors) at the end of the project. The advantage to the investors is that their money goes directly into the product, not into setting up the studios and the capital needed for the bricks and mortar, equipment and hiring the operational management. At the end of the project the investors have no liabilities for any of the studio costs, people or depreciation. They just disburse any profits, close down the vehicle and move on to the other projects in their investment portfolio. 
So it seems to me that this is the basis for a new Biotech business model. It would have the same advantage to the investors that they are not splashing cash on facilities and highly paid management, but directly on a drug project or portfolio of projects. They can assess progress by best practice project and portfolio management and switch on or off funding depending on progress. This is a new and exciting opportunity for the talent, which in our Biotech world are the experienced drug hunters, many of whom have recently been paid off by Pharma and have time on their hands. In the Hollywood model, they get rewarded through a stake in the project's success and they get to work in a small focussed team of like minded experts to deliver the project, not struggle waste their lives fighting through corporate undergrowth. The producer role is a fascinating one. Those entrepreneurial scientists that can pull a project together and raise the money. Not like now, when one start-up company costs 5-10 years of an entrepreneurial scientist's career - but for multiple projects with a 1-2 year lifespan. If I was a Biotech investor, I'd be hiring Producers.  
So I'd expect this model would give low start up costs, near zero fixed operational costs, high scalability and much more flexibility to start and finish projects depending on success. 
The talent is there, many of whom could be Producer's. CRO's provide the outsourced lab and other capital-intensive facilities for chemistry, screening, DMPK etc, but there remains a gap in the market for the "Hollywood Studios of Biotech" that would make all this work in practice. 
Hope this makes sense and welcome any discussion. 
David E Leahy 
CEO Molplex
Posted @ Monday, January 31, 2011 8:10 AM by David E Leahy
David, we have created a non-profit 'Hollywood Studio of Biotech' to be even more cost effective.
Posted @ Wednesday, May 04, 2011 4:02 PM by John Didsbury
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