MedImmune an anchor for Md. biotechs

Its success, investments helped other state companies get started

April 24, 2007|By Allison Connolly | Allison Connolly,Sun reporter

MedImmune is the only Maryland biotechnology company to develop a blockbuster drug, establishing itself among the upper tier of the industry. It also spread around its money and influence to help other Maryland companies get started.

Through its venture capital arm, MedImmune Ventures Inc., the company has invested $152 million in 16 companies, three of which are in Maryland. A fourth company, Micromet Inc., is moving its U.S. headquarters to Bethesda this week from Carlsbad, Calif., because of its close relationship with MedImmune.

"Obviously, we've been a success story, and that's good. ... People who have been successful go off and raise money and start other companies," said Wayne T. Hockmeyer, chairman of MedImmune and president of MedImmune Ventures. "That's one of the roles that a successful company plays. It spawns new entrepreneurs."

State officials have held up MedImmune as a star example of a thriving biotech sector - a large and profitable company that has generated biotech jobs and business for the state, both through its development and manufacturing and its venture arm.

"MedImmune has been an incredibly strong anchor in the growth of biotech in the state of Maryland, there's no question about it," said Julie Coons, chief executive officer of the Tech Council of Maryland/MdBio. "Their stature, their presence and their willingness to be open and present in the community has no doubt pushed this community forward."

"They have done everything right," said Aris Melissaratos, former state secretary of economic development who now oversees commercialization efforts at the Johns Hopkins University.

The sale to AstraZeneca PLC means Maryland loses the headquarters of yet another native-born company. But state officials emphasized the positive yesterday, heralding the arrival of "big pharma" in Maryland.

"When an outside company values a member of your corporate community, it's a validation of the work being done by MedImmune and other companies in the state," said state economic development Secretary David W. Edgerley.

Edgerley said he would work closely with AstraZeneca to preserve MedImmune's 1,700 Maryland jobs. Also watching closely are officials in Frederick, where MedImmune employs 235 at its manufacturing plant.

Laurie Boyer, deputy director of economic development for Frederick County, said she and other state and local officials are scheduled to meet with AstraZeneca in the coming weeks.

"MedImmune has made a major investment in Frederick and in the state of Maryland," she said. "We expect AstraZeneca will build on that."

The impact of yesterday's deal on MedImmune's venture arm is unclear. Launched in July 2002 with the goal of investing up to $100 million in biotechs over three years, it has raised $300 million.

The company seeks out private and public companies with products that are in MedImmune's areas of interest, including cancer, infectious diseases and inflammatory diseases. It invests up to $20 million in a company, but averages around $7 million. The investments have yielded collaborations and licensing deals and an acquisition. In September 2005, MedImmune bought one of its portfolio companies, Cellective Therapeutics Inc., a Gaithersburg biotech that is developing treatments for cancer and autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Other companies with venture arms include Siemens, Johnson & Johnson and Intel, which has the largest, said Mark Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association in Arlington, Va.

"There are a lot of corporations who have said we will do our own R&D but we also want to see what's going on outside the company," Heesen said.

However, corporate venture arms are difficult to maintain, and are considered the "bleeding part of the budget," Heesen said. They can be shut down on a CEO's whim, and traditional venture firms view them as risky partners, he said.

The acquisition should have not have an immediate effect on the contracts MedImmune has with its portfolio companies. However, the companies are watching closely.

"The question is, will AstraZeneca be as interested in the vaccines we're developing as MedImmune was," said Robert Becker, vice president of VaxInnate Inc. in Cranbury, N.J., a portfolio company. MedImmune's medical director, Dr. Franklin H. Top Jr., sits on VaxInnate's board.

"We're actually happy that MedImmune is trying to complete the transaction quickly," said Christopher Schnittker, chief financial officer at Micromet. `Transactions like these usually take a long time."

Coons, of MdBio, believes the deal could be a plus for Maryland, opening the way for other pharmaceutical companies to follow.

"Maryland is the place for big pharma," she said. "We have all of the right elements to support big pharma here."

Despite numerous efforts, the state has failed to lure large pharmaceutical companies to Maryland and away from states such as Massachusetts and North Carolina, which have become hubs for American and international pharmaceutical companies and their manufacturing plants.

Melissaratos said Johns Hopkins has been pitching its new biotech park, to open in East Baltimore next year, to pharmaceutical companies that might be interested in collaborating with its biotech tenants. He said seven of the top nine prospects for the park were born from research done at Hopkins.

"Big pharma is in trouble in the U.S.," he said. "Their pipelines are running dry, and they've got competition from generic drug manufacturers."

allison.connolly@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.

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