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Creative Funding by Biotechs


Charlottetown-based drug-discovery company Neurodyn Inc. tapped an unlikely source of capital when it announced its $1.5-million to $2-million funding round last week. It raised money from something called a “home office.” It also revealed a new trend among Atlantic Canadian biotech companies.

Regional biotechs are becoming creative in their fundraising and seeking sources beyond venture capital firms and Canadian angels. Because of the philanthropic nature of biotech, they’re able to find money from charitable foundations, family funds, and wealthy people in emerging markets.

This creativity is essential because biotech, especially drug discovery, requires large amounts of “patient” money, often amounting to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Not only do products have to be developed and refined but huge amounts are also needed for clinical trials and regulatory approval, and the payback is often years away.

“With the amount of time it takes to get from concept to customer, it requires a lot of capital,” says Marli MacNeil, the executive director of BioNova, the Nova Scotia life sciences association. “Companies are being innovative in how they present themselves to the market.”

Neurodyn is a shining example. It announced recently that it had raised $1.5 million in investment and may top it up with an additional $500,000 now under negotiation. The money came from a range of investors, including Charlottetown’s Regis Duffy BioScience Fund Inc.

The most interesting part of the announcement was that Neurodyn, which is developing products to treat the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders, raised money from Mertz Holdings, a home office in Houston, Texas. Home offices are groups that manage the assets of wealthy families, and their numbers have been growing so quickly that family office conferences are being held across North America.

“Home offices can be as powerful as VCs,” says Neurodyn executive director Robert Cervelli, who plans to attend one of the conferences in the U.S. this spring. Cervelli adds that these funds are a perfect match for biotech because they like philanthropic investing, are willing to wait for the investment to mature, and are attracted by the high multiples offered down the road through new medical technology. Neurodyn also has formed a partnership with the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which has helped to finance some of its work.

Then there’s Picomole, the Moncton-based biotech that’s developing a breath test to help doctors determine whether a patient has lung cancer. With a single breath sample, Picomole’s device can rule out the presence of cancer in the patient’s lungs, which is cheaper and much less invasive than a biopsy. Picomole is considering targeting emerging markets in Latin America or Asia as test grounds for its product and raising funds in those markets.

In a recent interview, Picomole CEO John Cormier said that an emerging market might be the perfect place to launch the product because medical communities in such locales are less married to established practices, and there may be fewer regulatory hurdles. He also believes that wealthy individuals in foreign markets would be interested in funding further development of the product for financial and philanthropic reasons.

These are just two companies undertaking the difficult expensive task of advancing medical technology, and they’re now looking to new sources of financing internationally. “The model has changed drastically,” says BioNova’s MacNeil. “And the companies in this region that need capital have figured that out.”

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