Icon gets in on the ground floor with a Novartis-backed biotech upstart

Mereo CEO Denise Scots-Knight

Irish CRO Icon ($ICLR) has signed on to be the exclusive service provider for a new U.K. biotech startup, planning to help the nascent company advance a trio of Novartis ($NVS)-developed drugs.

The new company, Mereo BioPharma, is setting out with three clinical candidates acquired from Novartis in exchange for equity, raising $119 million from Woodford Investment Management and Invesco to move them forward. And Icon has joined the fold to handle the heavy lifting of clinical development, lending its global scale to the small drugmaker as Mereo's sole CRO partner. Neither side is disclosing financial details.

Founded in March, the London-headquartered Mereo is developing treatments for COPD, hypogonadotropic hypogonadism and the rare brittle bone syndrome. Denise Scots-Knight, a former manager at U.K. venture firm Phase4 Partners, is leading as CEO, joined by biopharma veteran Peter Fellner in the role of chairman.

Mereo plans to quickly ramp up late-stage development for its three assets, counting on Icon to help it mobilize without putting undue strains on its internal resources, the company said.

"The relationship is designed not only to help us conduct global clinical studies as we develop our product portfolio, but also to leverage Icon's broader consulting expertise," Scots-Knight said in a statement. "We look forward to a fruitful alliance, progressing our pipeline in the clinic and ultimately delivering new valuable medicines to patients."

- read the statement