Drug development company Amphora Discovery has landed its second big venture capital round since it was spun out of a California-based instrument manufacturer almost 15 months ago.

Amphora has closed on a $23 million second round, tapping existing investors ARCH Venture Partners, MPM Capital, Venrock Associates, CW Group and Versant Ventures. The group was part of a $25 million initial round that helped launch Amphora in September 2001.

The new money will be used to expand internal research programs and commercialize Amphora’s drug discovery technology, says Cesar Collado, vice president of business development. The company has generated no revenue to date and doesn’t have any partnerships with pharmaceutical firms.

“We spent 2002 focusing on building our operations. Now, we want to take advantage of that and bring in some business,” Collado says.

The company’s technology was developed by Caliper Technologies of Mountain View Calif. Caliper produces LabChip devices and systems that enable experiments ordinarily requiring laboratories full of equipment and people to be conducted on a small chip of material.

The chip contains a network of microscopic channels through which fluids and chemicals move in order to perform an experiment.

Caliper began to use the LabChip for high-throughput screening of chemical compounds in 1997 to create a database of information for use in identifying potential drugs. After four years of internal development, the company spun out Amphora last year and set it up in Durham. Now, all but a handful of its 55 employees are based in North Carolina.

Collado says the Triangle was attractive because it has a large pool of chemists and other trained workers, rent and other costs are cheaper than in Silicon Valley and some of the management team Caliper recruited to run the operation were already located here.

Amphora President and Chief Executive Marty Haslanger previously ran Research Triangle Park-based Sphinx Pharmaceuticals, a division of Eli Lilly.

Unique technology

Although Sphinx and a number of other firms also boast technology that they say speeds the drug discovery time by rapidly screening thousands of chemical combinations and picking out the most promising candidates to target certain diseases, Collado says using the LabChip to run its screening sets Amphora apart from the pack.

Most screening encounters open-air and liquid handling problems, which decrease the accuracy of the results, he says.

The “microfluidics” technology of the LabChip is performed within a sealed chamber, producing purer chemical reactions and better data.

“Our platform, combined with our proprietary know-how, lets us generate novel leads with unprecedented data quality,” he says.

The company is trying to develop a database of how certain small molecules interact with therapeutic targets and with an array of gene products, including drug absorption, metabolism, toxicology and physical properties of individual molecules.

In addition to sharing information in the database with pharmaceutical partners, which officials say could lop a year or two off the drug development process, Collado says Amphora is building its own pipeline based on some of the work already done by its scientists.

“There are certain projects we want to take forward to more advanced stages,” he says, declining to be more specific.

Michael Steinmetz of MPM Capital said in a statement that such a double-barreled approach makes Amphora a valuable commodity.
“Amphora has made enormous strides in developing their technologies into an industrialized small molecule drug discovery process,” he said. “We believe that the Amphora Discovery System will be of great value to their partners in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries and to Amphora’s internal projects.”

The latest funding round should last about two years, when Collado says the company should be generating some revenue – although not profitable – and be in stronger position for a third round.

Amphora Discovery: www.amphoracorp.com