FierceBiotech's 2014 Fierce 15

A few things struck us while gathering this year's class of the Fierce 15, our 12th annual take on some of the most noteworthy private biotech upstarts making headway these days.

First, you'll find a higher than usual accumulation of early-stage companies in the group. And it's not hard to see why. Once the IPO window opened in early 2013, we saw a whole slew of earlier winners jump through--many like bluebird ($BLUE) and Agios ($AGIO) winning some extraordinary returns for investors. By the end of last year we were beginning to see plenty of other newcomers make the move as well, definitely winnowing out the number of more advanced companies to select from.

So here's the other kicker: These new companies are getting started with what I call the biotech redux generation, very experienced executives who were able to take advantage of the most recent wave of acquisitions to make a deal and are now coming back to start new companies like Editas (Avila's Katrine Bosley) and Cidara (Jeff Stein). Experienced drug developers with some excellent contacts in both the scientific world as well as the venture crowd make for some of the savviest new players in the business.

This year we're also seeing some new technologies at the forefront, with gene therapy making a big mark alongside CAR-T and TCRs. Immuno-oncology in general represents a major portion of this year's report, and we're including one potential breakout on the cancer vaccine side, which just may have figured out how to beat the odds that have scuttled so many of its predecessors.

Or not. High rewards come to those willing to take high risks, and few industries score as high on the risk scale as biotech. Smart money, proven executives and great science may improve the odds, but they can't eliminate the cloud of uncertainty that surrounds every early-stage, and most late-stage, treatments. All we can say is that if any of these biotechs don't make it in the end, it will be a disappointment. They are all aiming at big targets--not a me-too in the mix. And their success would spell a better world for patients.

Finally, I'd say that the science behind drug development is perhaps more clearly defined in this year's class than ever before. Every entrepreneur now understands just how important it is to have the right lab behind the company. That kind of scientific credibility is at the heart of many success stories. And as more scientists get bitten by the biotech bug, I'd be willing to wager that you'll see many of them come back to launch more new companies in years to come. 

Like last year, all of this year's winners were selected by myself and News Editor Damian Garde, who shares the workload on FierceBiotech. -- John Carroll (email | Twitter)

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FierceBiotech's 2014 Fierce 15