2005 Industry Report: Lifesciences

Money proves to be real pill for industry

prescriptions

TREND: Venture capital for North Carolina companies declined during the last four years.

OUTLOOK: Businesses will look more aggressively for alternative funding such as federal grants.

Executives at life-sciences companies in North Carolina have at least one thing to be thankful for: Their industry’s popularity with venture capitalists isn’t fading as fast as it has for some others. Through three quarters of 2004, they had grabbed 29% of the venture capital received by North Carolina companies, compared with 14.4% during the first nine months of 2000. Still, they got less money in 2004, about $64 million, compared with $226 million in 2000. That’s because the amount of venture capital declined sharply, from about $1.6 billion in the first three quarters of 2000 to about $220 million in 2004.

That isn’t the only problem. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has faced increased scrutiny since September when Merck pulled its FDA-approved Vioxx pain reliever because of studies showing it can increase the risk of heart attacks. That makes life tougher for all drug companies. “They can’t get drugs through,” says Monica Doss, president of the Research Triangle Park-based Council for Entrepreneurial Development. “They can’t get things looked at. They can’t get things done quickly.”

Even before the news about Vioxx, Durham-based Inspire Pharmaceuticals had trouble leaping regulatory hurdles. It expected FDA approval for diquafosol, a treatment for dry-eye disease, by the end of 2003, but regulators asked for more testing. Additional trials began in June, and the company has said it hopes to resubmit by midyear its application to begin selling the drug.

The drought of initial public offerings in the state continued — there have been none since 2002 — despite an increase nationwide that started in late 2003. There were 216 IPOs in the United States in 2004, compared with 221 the three previous years combined, according to Renaissance Capital, a Greenwich, Conn.-based IPO research company.

A few drug companies have declared their desire to go public but haven’t followed through. Winston-Salem-based Targacept, developing drugs to treat nervous-system disorders, and Durham-based Icagen, seeking treatments for diseases such as sickle-cell anemia, both filed IPO plans with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2004. Each aimed to raise about $86 million. Neither had issued stock by year-end. Six North Carolina companies went public in 2000, but only one, Cary-based drug researcher Inveresk Research Group, has since then. Wilmington, Mass.-based Charles River Laboratories bought it last year for $1.5 billion.

The more immediate growth in the industry should come from older companies, says Leslie Alexandre, president and CEO of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Employment in drug manufacturing should increase, aided by a growing work force from community-college programs training life-sciences workers.

Companies that can find venture capital likely will get it sooner — but with strings attached, Doss says. Instead of funding multiple rounds, venture capitalists will commit more money in the first round but dribble it out in stages. “They don’t give them all the money up front. It’s all benchmarked on milestones.” Knowing the money will be there if the company hits its marks keeps CEOs focused on growth rather than glad-handing potential investors, she says.

With venture capital harder to come by, expect to see more life-sciences companies looking for alternatives. They’ll go after government money as companies did before venture capital began flowing into the sector. Research Triangle Park-based AlphaVax won a $4.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a vaccine for severe acute respiratory syndrome. CED is counseling more companies on how to get such grants, Doss says.

There also will be more partnerships between large and small drug companies as large companies try to spread research-and-development costs. Durham-based BioStratum agreed in 2004 to collaborate with Danish insulin maker Novo Nordisk to develop a cancer treatment. The deal could be worth $80 million, plus royalties. “It allows the company to build some heft,” Doss says. “It’s not going to be a huge blockbuster for a company, but it allows them to build sales and build a sales force.”