Emerging Drug Developer: Forma Therapeutics

Fast-paced Forma maps global development trek

For a start-up company, Forma Therapeutics thought early on about developing a global development strategy. And that thought process pointed them straight to Singapore.

"We have a group (in Singapore) focused on chemistry and medicinal chemistry, with a little over 35 people," CEO Steven Tregay told FierceBiotech in a recent call from the city-state. "We really built early-on relationships in Singapore. As a site, it's tied to some skill sets we could tap into. Obviously, Singapore also provided collaborative opportunities. It's been very productive for us."

Forma now has 85 people on staff, a far cry from the virtual model favored by many biotechs today. Back at the beginning of the year, the staff head count only reached to about 40.

"We've been able to build the organization and core capabilities through organic growth, accessing teams through acquisitions and other approaches," says Tregay, a scientist by training who later jumped to the finance side of the business. "We grew faster than most people would expect. I think we've done it faster than we anticipated."

But Forma has also been on a roll on the fundraising side of the business. Last week the developer announced that it raised $25.5 million in a new venture round. Lilly Ventures led this latest round, with Novartis Option Fund - where Tregay had worked as managing director -- and Bio*One Capital joining in. Cubist Pharmaceuticals, which is partnered with the Cambridge, MA-based start-up, converted some debt into equity. Combined with its Series A at the beginning of the year, Forma has raised more than $50 million from venture groups while forging a string of collaborations that delivered additional partnership capital.

Following the global biotech money trail also helped guide Forma to Singapore, where Bio*One is based. 

"Singapore does a nice job of providing attractive incentives," says the CEO. And it's no coincidence that the company's investors include the investment arms of some Big Pharma brethren.

"Big Pharma is looking for innovation outside their own walls," says Tregay, who had been managing director at Novartis Option Fund, "and Forma has positioned itself very effectively to go after these challenging targets that many of these pharmas have failed at in the past. Forma's approach is to focus on integrating core technologies, screening and computational technology, accessing new chemical matter, to really unlock challenging target classes that historically have been very difficult."

Forma's science is based on work done by researchers from the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.

"On the computational side, the mapping side, we're able to really understand key interactions across the protein surfaces; what are druggable surfaces. Not all surfaces are druggable. Others have hot spots we can identify with the platform.

"We're still early stage," says Tregay about the pipeline. "Forma's approach is to work on multiple programs, moving a pipeline forward. With critical mass, we're able to do that."

And they're building the pipeline through partnerships at a very early stage in its development. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Novartis Institute of BioMedical Research, Novartis Option Fund, Cubist Pharmaceuticals and the Experimental Therapeutics Centre of Singapore have all signed up for collaborations.

"We'll have a substantial runway even in the absence of (new) deals," adds Tregay. "And we hope we can extend the runway substantially based on additional partnership revenue, with more product-oriented deals in the future.

"We view partnerships as a key component," he says. "As you can imagine, in today's environment it's particularly important to bring in non-dilutive financing." It also helps to validate the biotech's technology, as well as its confidence, to others."

But Tregay isn't talking about timelines. There's no word on when its first therapeutic will hit the clinic. He also isn't too specific on what his partnering expectations are.

"It's less about how many as doing the right deals," he says. "But we'll do at least a deal or two in 2010."

If the developer is successful, Forma will eventually wind up at an inevitable crossroads.

"I think obviously Forma can position itself very effectively for an IPO," says Tregay. But from a product and platform perspective, he adds, the odds are also pretty good that one of the pharma companies most interested in its technology could just end up acquiring the biotech.

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Emerging Drug Developer: Forma Therapeutics