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RESEARCH TRIANGLE … Ribonomics has started a five-figure pilot project with a major Japanese Phamaceutical company that could lead to a multi-million dollar deal, says Chris Kelly, president and chief executive officer.

Kelly tells Local Tech Wire that he can’t release the name of Japanese firm until a mutual-press release they agreed upon emerges from the firm’s review process. But the project involves using Ribonomics technology to vet drugs at pre-clinical stages to avoid later costly animal and human trials.

“We work with pharma customers to help them better understand the effects of their drug candidates,” Kelly says. It does so through the Ribonomics Analysis System (RAS), which reveals functional relationships between genes. Essentially, RAS can help drug makers “see side effects and other biological effects you can’t see using anything else,” Kelly says.

Kelly notes that through a process started last fall, Ribonomics managed to get its hands on a Phase II diabetes drug the Japanese firm is testing and included it in its own research on the Ribonomics technology. They told the Japanese company they could recreate a lot of pre-clinical testing the firm did before taking it to clinical trials.

“It was a blind test. We had the molecule and not much else,” Kellys says. “The pilot deal is so we can get a look at the data they’ve generated on their drug. We’ve met two times since April and the head researcher for their diabetes drug is thrilled.” Kelly says the firm is interested in the promise of Ribonomics’ RAS to “use it early in the pipeline before wasting millions on animal tests.”

Big deal possible

Kelly says the Japanese concern has four diabetes compounds it wants to advance and the pilot program could lead to a “seven-figure, multi-million dollar deal for Ribonomics.”

The company has focused much of its research on glucose metabolism, which is involved in diabetes and obesity. Both are serious problems in the west and increasingly so in Japan.

Ribonomics received $3.1 million in first round funding in 2001 from another Japanese company, and its chief corporate partner so far, Medical and Biological Laboratories (MBL), which makes diagnostics and reagents for research and clinical applications.

The company has been successful in winning a number of grants recognizing the scientific and commercial potential of its technology. In May, the National Institute of Health awarded the company grants totaling $663,000 for its diabetes drug discovery program.

In February, the NC Biotechnology Center awarded Ribonomics a $150,000 grant “in recognition of the high commercial potential and scientific merit of the company’s functional clustering technology.”

Previously, the company won a $420,000 grant from the U.S. Dept. of Defense funded through the Breast Cancer Research Program of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, also citing the technology’s commercial potential.

Fish farm blues

Kelly, previously a vice president of the First Flight Venture Center of the North Carolina Technological Development Authority, also co-founded Philadelphia-based Xlibris, the first online publish-on-demand company, which Random House purchased. He joined Ribonomics in 2002.

It’s downright hard to avoid some unusual cross-pollination of ideas when you have office on NCSU’s Centennial Campus, though. Kelly says he sees the possibility of yet another new business in an NCSU graduate’s dissertation. “I’ve been working with a recent grad in zoology on the possibility of providing live feeds for fish farms,” he says.

“It’s a real business problem that needs to be solved. Most fish farms lose eggs because the fish can’t eat in captivity. In the wild they eat special plankton that allows them to thrive. We think we can improve productivity by an order of magnitude.”

Kelly says the potential start-up has no business plan as yet. “We hope to get the pieces in place to get something up and running,” he says.

SEBIO Deadline
Deadline for applications for companies to present at the Sixth Annual Southeastern BIO Investor Forum November 8-9 at the Doral Golf Resort in Miami, Florida, is August 3.

Companies will be considered for either the early stage interactive event or presentations. The selected companies will be from across the Southeast and will present their business plans to an audience of venture capital firms, investment funds and angel investors. The application fee is $125.

SEBIO is an event of the Southeastern Life Sciences Association (SELSA), a regional collaboration of leading organizations from life sciences, entrepreneurship, and venture capital, from both the public and private sectors. The North Carolina Council for Entrepreneurial Development is a member of SELSA and an organizational sponsor of SEBIO.

Ribonomics: www.ribonomics.com

SEBIO Presentation Applications: www.sebio.org/2004/companies/application_to_present/index.html