Eli Lilly's $1B buyout bet for Protomer brings the 'next frontier' in smart insulin tech under the Big Pharma's wing

Eli Lilly is looking to shore up its future diabetes franchise by putting $1 billion on the table to buy out next-gen biotech Protomer.

Six-year-old Protomer is engineering protein therapeutics that can sense molecular activators in the body. In a nutshell, this allows the creation of therapeutic peptides and proteins with tunable activity that can be controlled using small molecules.

Protomer has so far tapped this platform to create glucose-responsive insulins that can sense sugar levels in the blood and automatically activate as needed throughout the day. Though still early-stage, a breakthrough here could drastically reduce the burden of diabetes by better managing sugar levels and reducing the risk of hypo- and hyperglycemia.

Glucose-sensing insulin is “the next frontier and has the potential to revolutionize the treatment and quality of life of people with diabetes by dramatically improving both therapeutic efficacy and safety of insulin therapy,” said Ruth Gimeno, vice president, diabetes research and clinical investigation at Lilly.

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There’s no breakdown of the financials, just a $1 billion “value of the transaction” amount tagged on and no mention of an upfront.  

The Pasadena, California-based company is no stranger to Lilly, in fact, the maker of Trulicity owns 14% of the biotech and previously led an equity investment in Protomer alongside the JDRF T1D Fund. The deal sees Lilly snap up the rest of the company.

“We are excited to join Lilly, a leader in diabetes therapies, and advance our science with their support to better serve the needs of patients. This transaction validates our team's accomplishments, and we look forward to continuing our important work together with Lilly,” said Alborz Mahdavi, CEO and founder of Protomer.

“We have been supported by JDRF since our inception and working closely with one of the leading organizations in type 1 diabetes research has been invaluable for us," Mahdavi continued. "The Protomer team is excited to embark on the next chapter of our work at Lilly as we focus our efforts on advancing glucose-responsive insulins and accelerating the development of these next-generation protein therapeutics.”

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The deal follows in the footsteps of Lilly's great diabetes rival, Novo Nordisk, which is working on a similar platform after acquiring U.K. biotech start-up Ziylo for around $800 million back in 2018. This University of Bristol spinout has been pioneering the use of synthetic glucose binding molecules for therapeutic applications.