Biotech start-up wins Google's attention--and money

Last week, iPierian snared one of the most intriguing new investors on the biotech scene when it announced that Google Ventures was taking the lead on a $22 million Series B.

The biotech had already gained Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as a backer--a venture capital outfit with a big appetite for new technology that promises to shake up entire industries. And iPierian, which was formed with the vow of changing the way drugs are discovered and tested, fits that bill perfectly.

The South San Francisco-based iPierian has been hiring rapidly to build a staff intent on using patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells to provide a better tool for gauging the usefulness of a new drug candidate.

"The iPS factory is running at full steam to make and bank cells," says newly-promoted CEO Michael Venuti. And Venuti has no trouble explaining why Google would be interested in a company like iPierian. If you think about all the imaging, genomic, molecular, and clinical data involved in the discovery and testing process, a technology company like Google can quickly feel right at home.

"Think of the manifold amount of data," says Venuti, "through clinical diagnosis, genotype and phenotype information with any sample, moving into hundreds of assays and millions of compounds. For guys like that, this is stuff that's really appealing. The extension into the clinic and the marketplace with mineable data creates a way of approaching evidence-based medicine that hasn't existed before."

Not too long ago, iPierian recruited its 51st employee, making it sizeable among biotech start-ups. And now that Venuti has the staff in place, he plans to move fast, striking discovery deals with pharma companies and laying the initial foundation of compounds for iPierian's own pipeline.

"This is fast-moving technology," says Venuti. "We're seeing rapid uptake in pharma and we're moving to make this the industry standard for getting patient-derived drug discovery into the process."

The new round combined with grant money iPierian is pursuing along with "a partnership or two, takes us into 2013," says Venuti. "We've got conversations on therapeutic areas and individual indications and technology areas. The uptake in pharma for this technology is just amazing to me. This is the first time they're going to have a look at patient-derived human pharmacology."

"Even engineered humanized models and animal models don't accurately predict efficacy in a broad patient population," adds Venuti. "That's why the Phase III failure rate is up to 60 percent, which is horrible. We can screen on patient background, either picking a single cell to represent the disease of having hundreds of cells represent the broad patient population at selecting preclinical candidates."

The technology can be used at every stage of a new drug's existence, from preclinical discovery work through clinical trials and on into the marketing phase. "You finally have a tool that makes evidence-based medicine work, starting with patients and ending with patients instead of engineered models or cell lines that exaggerate responses." - John Carroll (twitter | email)