Thursday 8 September 2011

F-star – a shining example of biotech and drug discovery

The ingredients for a successful biotech company are actually much like any other early-stage business: a good product with customer interest, management skilled to commercialise the product, and the financial backing to make the project a reality. It’s the simple, TV Dragons Den formula.

The difference with biotech is in assessing the quality and robustness of the technology, finding suitably experienced management, and sourcing the weighty investment necessary to succeed---pharmaceutical companies still quote $500m per drug to market, although good biotech companies should slash these costs.

I’ve been tracking F-star ( since late 2009, just before it raised €8million in an extended series A, drawing in the venture wings of two pharmaceutical plays: MerckSerono and Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma. Yesterday (September 7th 2011) the company announced that from the early investment from MerckSerono, a product development deal had evolved worth just shy of €500m. MerckSerono is providing three drug targets in inflammatory disease to which F-star is creating antibody drug candidates through its Modular Antibody technology.

Between these two events with MerckSerono, the company has also struck a deal with Boehringer Ingelheim worth up to up to €180m for each of seven targets, and closed an additional financing round of €15m, led by SR-one, GlaxoSmithKline’s venture wing. Other investors in the business include Novo Ventures, the venture arm of Danish pharma group Novo, and a purse of established life science venture capitalists.

These events have all fallen under the leadership of Kevin FitzGerald, who took to the CEO seat just seven months before closing the €8m financing in January 2010. Along the way the company has also managed to attract the likes of Sir Greg Winter, arguably the world’s leading academic on antibodies, to head the scientific advisory board.

So, a great product with significant pharma interest; a management team that is actively (and rapidly) progressing the company’s potential; and all healthily financed in a way few biotechs are in the current cycle. F-star is fulfilling a simple business formula. It’s now probably too hot for even the fieriest of Dragons, but are there deep-pocketed investors in life science that will recognise, buy into, and further progress the F-star proposition? I sense so.

Adam Michael

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