At biotech conference, a focus on finding funding

BETHESDA, VA. OCT.28.. Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics at a Bio-Tech conference in Bethesda, MD on Oct. 28, 2010 ( Photograph by Jeffrey MacMillan )
BETHESDA, VA. OCT.28.. Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics at a Bio-Tech conference in Bethesda, MD on Oct. 28, 2010 ( Photograph by Jeffrey MacMillan ) (Jeffrey Macmillan - Jeffrey Macmillan For Washington Post)
By Steven Overly
Monday, November 1, 2010

The Mid-Atlantic Bio conference has built an identity by knitting together what many see as the region's biggest biotech strength, its proximity to federal labs and regulators, with what many lament as its biggest weakness, a small investment community.

The annual event, now in its seventh year, didn't deviate from that theme last week as it brought biotech executives and investors from both sides of the Potomac together at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center.

Coming off a year when venture capital across most industries sank to its lowest levels in a decade, a sense of measured enthusiasm seemed to prevail as the numbers posted so far in 2010 show a slow return to pre-recession levels.

"I definitely sense an uptick in optimism," said Mark Herzog, executive director of the Virginia Biotechnology Association. His organization organized the event, along with the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association and the Tech Council of Maryland.

"It's been a very tough couple of years in the community, there are a lot of companies that have struggled to get bank loans and bridge funding to keep their business going," he said.

Biotechnology and life science companies present high-risk opportunities for investors even in the best economic conditions. Research, clinical trials and regulatory reviews are cash intensive and time consuming with the promise of returns often years away.

Most of the event's speakers and panels centered on ways to chip away at that reality, either by finding new streams of funding or speeding up the Food and Drug Administration approval process.

Taking the stage Friday, industry leaders James Greenwood, president and chief executive of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and John Castellani, president and chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, suggested tax credits and reduced capital gains taxes could spur investment.

About 24 hours earlier, Joshua Sharfstein, the FDA's principal deputy commissioner, fielded criticisms cloaked as questions about the agency's approval requirements and emphasis on safety data. Sharfstein said regulatory science "really needs to grow in concert with biomedical research" so that a balance is found between breakthrough medicines and safety.

Several top chief executives were brought in to offer business advice, including Martine Rothblatt, chief executive of United Therapeutics. She discussed public ownership. Then came a question many in the audience likely wanted to know: What do you look for in a corporate partner?

"What we ask ourselves internally is, will this be a force multiplier for United Therapeutics? Will this extend our reach, extend our revenues, extend our pipeline?" Rothblatt said.

Many of the policy discussions ran concurrently with 10-minute pitch sessions from company executives seeking investments.

One was Alan Klein, executive vice president of development at Rockville-based Sequella. The company is poised to begin trials of a tuberculosis drug in Africa by year's end, but needs funding to advance other products in development.

"Most of the companies here had to be very careful in how they got through the last couple of years," Klein said in an interview. "The private markets were either closed or close to closed ... so hopefully they're opening back up."


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