Roche, Versant launch new-wave biotech startup

Roche and a biotech incubation engine set up by Versant Ventures--Inception Sciences--have hatched an innovative plan to create a new company to develop therapies for hearing loss. In the deal, Versant will kick in equity cash while the pharma giant funds research work on new technology out of Stanford. And the R&D will be spearheaded by Amira co-founder Peppi Prasit and his team at Inception. If it pans out, Roche ($RHHBY) has a deal in place to acquire the fledgling operation--Inception 3--at the IND stage.

The collaboration will focus on developing new drugs targeting inner ear hair cell protection and regeneration in the cochlea. As the founders note in their release, "sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type of permanent hearing loss and occurs when specialized sensory cells that detect sound (called hair cells) are injured, do not work correctly or have died."

Inception 3 is the latest in a new wave of virtual companies that are being hatched by venture groups which have been toying with low-cost startups with a very narrow scientific objective. CMEA and Atlas have both established similar operations designed to breed new programs that can be swiftly partnered with Big Pharma companies hungry for new drugs and searching for partners to share the risk.

Simply put, putting promising new technology into a company like this is potentially a quick way to generate returns for investors, avoiding the long haul that most biotechs can look forward to as they set out to push a program through Phase II. 

"This deal structure is unique in that it enables us to pursue exciting, emerging science and develop it in partnership with venture capital and pioneers in this field," indicated Shafique Virani, global head of neuroscience partnering at Roche. "The collaboration construct further gives us the flexibility in externalizing our R&D fixed cost base into an operationally nimble new company to achieve this." 

- here's the press release