Bullish New Year's resolutions debut at the J.P. Morgan event

The annual J.P. Morgan confab in San Francisco is a great place to check the pulse of the country's biotech industry. Last year you couldn't miss the dangerously erratic beat as the financial crisis played out. But my sampling of CEO plans at the event picked up a strong tempo. This set of New Year's resolutions sounded distinctly bullish.

Bob Baltera, an Amgen veteran who went on to become the CEO at Amira Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, says he's in late-stage partnership talks for his company's second big collaboration deal. Amira inked a $425 million partnership with GlaxoSmithKline in 2008. Another pact with a trove of milestones for Amira's second program-a primary care product dealing with respiratory diseases--would free the developer to focus on a third specialty drug product that it can develop for itself. And that would position the company for an IPO that theoretically could happen around 18 to 24 months from now.

Maybe the IPO market isn't as good as it was five or six years ago, Baltera tells me. But it's made a major turnaround from a year ago. Now some biotechs that look a lot like Amira have filed to go public. And that has him thinking about following in their path.

Over the past year Cambridge, MA-based Forma Therapeutics has doubled in size, building an employee roster of 90 people as it raised more than $50 million and inked five discovery collaborations. Last January CEO Steven Tregay was talking about adding $15 million to $20 million in a Series B. It ended up at $28.5 million. Forma has an impressive group of scientific founders. Three genomics experts at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard--Todd Golub, Stuart Schreiber and Michael Foley-provided the technical inspiration. And Tregay says it all sprang from discussions focusing on a simple question: "How would we redo drug discovery if we had the chance to?"

The answer was a company that brought together some cutting-edge technologies and a capacity to turn on a dime. "We can start a drug discovery program on Monday," says Tregay. This year the CEO is focusing on fewer new collaborations, but he wants the company to start demonstrating that it can hit some particularly hard targets.

At Seaside Therapeutics, CEO Randall Carpenter and COO Daniel Geffken are focused on transforming the developer into more of a franchise player. Seaside, which came out of stealth mode just last September, is a unique company. The bulk of its $66 million in funding has come from a single, unnamed backer. The mystery man's money has pushed the company to the brink of mid-stage data for its Fragile X therapy, which should arrive in the second quarter of the year. If the results are promising, Seaside could go ahead into a confirmatory Phase III study. But Carpenter and Geffken are in San Francisco to talk up plans to broaden the company's work on Fragile X and autism into similar diseases, perhaps in-licensing new programs and "heading down a path to build a sustainable business," says Geffken.

Martin Cleary, who has founded a string of biotech companies, including Juvaris, is back for his umpteenth J.P. Morgan gathering with an eye to finding a million dollars in seed capital for Amarantus Therapeutics. The tiny virtual developer has a program that could reverse apoptosis, rescuing cells and perhaps having an impact on diseases like Parkinson's-the initial focus-as well as cardiac ischemia and transplants, what the CEO calls the "low hanging fruit." A $15 million Series A would get the company up and running, with enough cash to start manufacturing clinical grade material. And Cleary thinks he can get it. - John Carroll