Merrimack Pharmaceuticals - 2011 Fierce 15

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Merrimack Pharmaceuticals
Based: Cambridge, MA
Founded: 2000
Website: www.merrimackpharma.com
CEO: Robert Mulroy

The Scoop: Talk about confidence. This year, Merrimack Pharma raised a major new round, laid the foundation for a pivotal cancer drug study and filed to go public and raise $172 million--in a market that has shown little zeal for the kind of high-risk/high-reward proposition that biotech has to offer. Revenue and big prospects are in; red ink and regulatory risk is out. But the company has built a reputation for crafting new antibody programs that could turn the dial on cancer treatments--one of the hottest fields in biotech. Eleven years after its launch, Merrimack faces a big year full of major turning points. It will be fascinating to watch. 

What Makes It Fierce: Every biotech will tell you it believes in its new drug programs. But back in May, Merrimack did something you rarely see in this industry. It went out and grabbed back some key international development rights to its lead drug MM-398 as the biotech prepared for a pivotal trial. Putting up $10 million and promising millions more to complete the deal, Merrimack clearly sees a more lucrative arrangement ahead if it can complete a positive Phase III.

That's a big bet, but Merrimack's backers have been eagerly supporting the Cambridge, MA-based developer for years. This year, they underscored their confidence in Merrimack's future with a $77 million round that landed just ahead of an IPO filing.

Merrimack execs right now are in an SEC-mandated quiet period, so they couldn't talk to FierceBiotech in the lead-up to this report. But their genetically engineered antibodies have been attracting intense interest for years. Back in 2009, Sanofi ($SNY) paid $60 million upfront and promised up to $470 million more for the progress of MM-121, one of its antibody programs designed to block an ErbB3 receptor.

MM-398 is a nano-drug, targeting metastatic pancreatic and gastric cancer with a new encapsulation for the chemo drug irinotecan. In a single-arm Phase II study, 40 metastatic pancreatic cancer patients who had failed gemcitabine achieved a median survival point of 22.4 weeks. And one in 5 patients were alive after a year. The Phase III will recruit 250 patients and compare MM-398 with standard therapy. If it works there, the program has potential for glioma, as well as colorectal, lung and gastric cancers. And Merrimack is already at work on early- and mid-stage studies for other types of cancer.

Merrimack now has 5 programs in the clinic, an ambitious pipeline for a company that's seeking its first approval. And its steadfast investigators are beavering away at a whole range of studies. Just a few days ago, Merrimack announced the first patient had been dosed in a Phase I study of MM-302, a nanotherapeutic encapsulation of doxorubicin with attached antibodies that target the HER2 receptor.

Merrimack has been able to rely on some of the luminaries at Harvard and MIT for their scientific foundation. Their insights have helped build a computer modeling platform that can explore disease pathways and design better drugs.

Last August proved to be one of the most deadly months in years for IPOs, as companies scuttled one public offering after the next. Merrimack's backers include the kind of monied firms that can help push an IPO over the top. That may or may not be enough, but the biotech shows no signs of backing down yet. 

Venture Backers: Credit Suisse First Boston Next Fund, Crocker Ventures, funds advised by Fred Alger Management, funds advised by Noonday Asset Management, Jennison Associates, TPG-Axon Capital and WT Investment Advisors Fund.