Ambrx inks $303M 'smart bomb' development pact with Merck

San Diego-based Ambrx has added another Big Pharma notch to its deal belt. The biotech, a Fierce 15 company way back in 2005, grabbed $15 million upfront and the promise of up to $288 million more from Merck ($MRK) as it puts its protein expertise to work in creating new "smart bomb" therapeutic programs for the pharma giant.

Antibody drug conjugates have emerged as one of the hottest fields in cancer drug development, as even a casual observer would have noted at ASCO earlier this month. But this new deal will try to shift the focus into new drugs for a wider array of chronic ailments. 

"This agreement will allow us to combine Ambrx's expertise in site-specific protein conjugation chemistry with Merck's expanding antibody capabilities and extensive small molecule resources," says Richard Murray, Merck's senior vice president and head of biologics and vaccines research. Ambrx also gets a royalty stream from any drugs that go on to an approval.

Ambrx was founded back in 2003 on the protein work completed by Scripps investigator Peter Schultz. Since then it has struck a long roster of development deals to help fund the company with Big Pharma players like Eli Lilly ($LLY) and Merck KGaA. Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) signed on last fall. And it's lured in more than $100 million in venture cash.

Schultz and Merck are also close. He was tapped to run the California Institute for Biomedical Research, or Calibr, a drug discovery shop set up by Merck and financed with $90 million from the Big Pharma company.

Oddly, Ambrx has gone for a long spell without a CEO, since Steve Kaldor departed back in 2010.

- here's the press release