One of Big Pharma's favorite collaborators looks to set out on its own
CEO: Christian Zahnd
Based: Zurich, Switzerland
Clinical focus: Protein therapeutics
The scoop: Molecular Partners has perhaps the most on-the-nose name in the industry, as the Swiss biotech has made a habit of partnering with major drugmakers on the strength of its proprietary technology. Now, with millions of dollars in collaboration revenue in its wallet, the company is looking inward, shifting its focus to a stable of internal candidates as it works to become the next Big Biotech.
What makes Molecular Partners Fierce: The company, like its many partnerships, is built on the premise that its in-house biologics development platform is speedier, safer and more effective than anything else in the marketplace. Molecular Partners uses DARPins, genetically engineered proteins, to craft targeted delivery vehicles that can mimic antibodies and bind to specific targets anywhere in the body. As CEO Christian Zahnd describes them, DARPins perform like best-in-class antibodies, but without the associated toxicity risks, formulation difficulties and manufacturing costs.
Researchers at the University of Zurich hammered out the technology, and, seeing a huge market opportunity in a space dominated by antibody-drug conjugates, Zahnd and others formed Molecular Partners in 2004.
As its founders perhaps expected, Molecular Partners entered into a seller's market for its platform, allowing Zahnd and company to do only the deals with the highest upside. Roche ($RHHBY) stepped up first, in 2007, to pay an undisclosed sum for a crack at DARPins' promise. Impressed with the results, the drug giant returned late last year to sign a deal worth up to $1 billion that covers a slew of DARPin candidates against cancer.
The biotech's other deals tell a similar story. Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Janssen unit first approached Molecular Partners in 2008, paying $5 million up front for the license to two DARPins targeting inflammation. Three years later, J&J came back with eyes on four new immunology candidates, offering up to $800 million for the privilege. Allergan ($AGN) followed the same template, in 2011 signing a $425 million agreement to cut in on Molecular Partners' DARPin-powered ophthalmology treatment and then lining up a $1.5 billion R&D deal a year later.
"It's basically a common theme among our three major alliances: All started with initial, substantial deals that were all expanded," Zahnd said. "... It's a great validation for our approach. We went to them with the technology; they realized how powerful it is and came back."
And thanks to the lucre involved in each agreement, the company hasn't had to raise money since 2009, when it closed a $45 million B round. The biotech has banked more than $170 million in collaboration revenue, Zahnd said, and it's sitting on about $100 million in cash with plans to hit the gas on the second phase of its evolution as a company.
Molecular Partners' plan, from the start, was "to build a sustainable, substantial biotech player," Zahnd said, not just become an ideal partner for pharmas looking to innovate. And thus the company is now turning its attention to an oncology-focused internal pipeline, led by MP0210, a DARPin designed to combat solid tumors by targeting the VEGF and HGF pathways. Behind that, the biotech has some preclinical cancer treatments aiming at undisclosed targets and a few early-stage shots in immunology and inflammation.
The new, more introverted Molecular Partners hasn't sworn off dealmaking altogether, Zahnd said. But, thanks to the repeated validations of DARPins' potential, any new agreement would be a value-sharing alliance, he said, not just a licensing tie-up.
"We're here to stay," he said. "We have a big vision, and the commitment is truly to build a successful organization."
Investors: Index Ventures, Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation, Essex Woodlands, BB Biotech Ventures and Endeavour
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-- Damian Garde (email | Twitter)