The Dark Horse of the Year award goes to Aspreva Pharmaceuticals. This young biotech broke through the gate to not only crack the Top 100 public companies list just four years after its inception, but also claim bragging rights as the only biotech in B.C. to record a profit in 2005.
The Dark Horse of the Year award goes to Aspreva Pharmaceuticals. This young biotech shot out of the gate to not only crack the Top 100 public companies list just four years after its inception, but also claim bragging rights as the only biotech in B.C. to record a profit in 2005. For investors, it’s the home run that only biotech can offer. “Aspreva shows the explosive potential of life sciences to go from start-up to over $1-billion market cap in three years,” says Jim Heppell, president and fund manager of BC Advantage Funds, which was involved in Aspreva’s early rounds of seed financing and continues to hold shares. “That’s almost unheard of in any other industry.” More significant than the approximately $90 million in revenue that launched Aspreva into the big leagues is how it earned that money. Aspreva’s founders abandoned the traditional model of seeking promising science and then selling investors on the remote possibility that a discovery just might become a marketable drug in 10 or 20 years. Instead, Aspreva’s founders look for drugs already approved for commercial markets and seek new applications for those drugs in treating less common diseases. It’s an approach that has shaken up the local biotech industry. A number of copycats are expected to give Aspreva a run for its money (iCo Therapeutics is one up-and-comer that professes to be patterned after the Aspreva model), and more traditional drug-development companies are feeling the pressure to reduce the odds and shorten the time to market. “Aspreva is one model, but I don’t think it’s going to shy a lot of money away from the classic therapeutic companies because all of them are working on models that will help them become profitable or cash neutral in a shorter period of time,” says Heppell. As for future shakeups on the Top 100 list, the smart money is on Angiotech eclipsing QLT to take top spot. QLT has floundered in its efforts to shed the mantle of one-hit wonder. Its attempt to broaden its product portfolio with an $800-million acquisition in 2004 proved a flop, leading to a $400-million writedown that accounts for QLT’s 2005 loss. As the first local biotech to take a drug from early concept to commercial market, QLT taught the local industry a lesson in the importance of pursuing a two-track business plan that includes diversifying the pipeline of new drugs. When the company was founded in 1986 under the direction of Julia Levy, the focus was solely on bringing Visudyne to market. Champagne flowed when the U.S. approved the drug in 2000, but the euphoria was short-lived. In 2002, founder Levy handed the reins to Paul Hastings, a hotshot industry veteran from San Francisco whose mandate was to diversify QLT’s product portfolio. His diversification strategy hinged on the 2004 acquisition of Atrix Laboratories, Inc., and when that strategy proved a disappointment in late 2005, Hastings abruptly resigned, citing differences with the board. “They’re in a position now that’s quite tenuous,” notes Raymond James biotech analyst Brian Bapty, adding that an aggressive U.S. hedge fund has accumulated a significant ownership position in QLT and demands to see some results soon. Angiotech, on the other hand, has pursued a more promising diversification strategy. Its $900-million acquisition of American Medical Instruments Holdings, Inc. earlier this year – followed by its US$40-million purchase of cosmetic surgery and wound-closure technology firm Quill Medical in May – delivered a broad array of medical devices that complement its patented anti-infection coating technology. As for who to watch in future years, Heppell says to keep a close eye on Neuromed. Its recent licensing agreement with Merck was an extremely smart move, he says, promising to bring the company into the black while its lead drug is still in phase-two clinical trials. BC Biotech echoed the sentiment, recently naming Neuromed as Life Sciences Company of the Year. Another emerging star is Anormed. “It was the subject of a fairly snotty proxy fight this year, and people don’t fight over nothing,” notes Bapty. “There’s a very late-stage product there, with great data.” Related Stories: Top One Hundred Overview 2006 Ringing up revenues Vertical takeoff