The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of WRAL Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Liquidia’s technology and drug development deal with GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) has the potential to both make the world healthier and a lot of people richer. But Dr. Joseph DeSimone, the company’s founder and pioneer into the development of the nanotechnology that could revolutionize medicine, was most excited about the “team” that is commercializing his work while he continues to teach and pursue new inventions.
“As a founder, consultant and member of the Board of Directors I can’t express to you enough how excited and proud I am of the PRINT technology team at Liquidia, UNC and NCSU, as well as the business development and leadership team at Liquidia,” the distinguished professor told The Skinny shortly after the GSK deal was announced on June 20.
PRINT refers to Liquidia’s proprietary technology that someday could enable drugs to be enhanced and made much more effective in their design as well as delivery.
Although the financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, Liquidia is getting an infusion of cash as well as research and development support. The small startup also didn’t give up all rights to PRINT. Thus Liquidia scientists will continue work on their own while also collaborating with big brother not too far away in RTP where GSK maintains its U.S. headquarters.
Perhaps even more importantly than dollars, however, is GSK’s endorsement of Liquidia’s work.
“The GSK partnership is a huge validation of our technology and our strategy, coming on the heels of the terrific partnership with the Gates Foundation,” Dr. DeSimone said.
The Gates Foundation poured $10 million into Liquidia in search of better drug design in March of last year.
All the good news led the professor, who teaches chemistry at both N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill when not inventing something new, to praise Liquidia’s management.
“This is a true testimony too about the great leadership being provided by Neal Fowler our CEO and Seth Rudnick our chairman,” Dr. DeSimone, who has become a serial entrepreneur with other ventures to his credit, said. “These two gentleman are truly inspirational and effective leaders who are a blast to be with and learn from!”
If Fowler and company are teaching Dr. DeSimone (perhaps a Nobel winner some day?), well, that’s a pretty heavy compliment.
It was only four years ago when Fowler joined Liquidia as its CEO and Rudnick, a venture capitalist, as its chairman. They rallied the company from a tough spot after Todd Pope, a former Johnson & Johnson executive recruited for the CEO job, bolted in 2006.
Using PRINT in drug development also wasn’t always the top priority from the company’s launch in 2004 (flat-panel displays was a big focus). But Dr. DeSimone recalled that he saw immediate potential.
“Our focus in life sciences started out almost immediately when PRINT was developed,” he explained. “It is important to recognize that PRINT was developed in 2004 as part of a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center funded at UNC and NCSU that I and Ruben Carbonell led.
“The transition to life sciences was then fueled at UNC very early on by the National Cancer Institute through a Center for Nanotechnology Excellence which started in 2005. And now we are really driving applications in oncology and core knowledge in vaccines, including cancer vaccines at UNC through additional support from NIH, NCI and the State of North Carolina through the University Cancer Research Fund.
“This kind of federal and state support in basic science has been KEY!”
Fowler, a native of Raleigh and also a former J&J executive, receives high marks from the founder for the leadership he has brought the company.
“And another key point to make is about Neal Fowler,” Dr. DeSimone stressed. “He was instrumental in recognizing the need to focus the company around three ‘simple’ but incredibly insightful questions:
“Can we make it?
“What can it do?
“Where can we apply it?
“So the focus on manufacturing was instrumental. It got us to be GMP [good manufacturing process] focused and it was galvanizing!”
Dr. DeSimone made a point of praising GSK as well. The drug firm is refocusing its research and development efforts under Chief Executive Officer Andrew Witty with an emphasis on more partnerships and acquisitions, such as its hostile takeover bid for Human Genome Sciences and work in the past with Chapel Hill-based Pozen as well as Targacept in Winston-Salem.
While there are no guarantees that the GSK deal will result in approved drugs and hundreds of millions of dollars, Dr. DeSimone praised the firm for its support.
“This dialog has been extensive in time and depth,” he explained. “What is most clear to me is that we have not only a technical fit but we also have a cultural fit. The people there are great and appreciate our goals, our technology and our values, including the Gates partnership.
“It will be a great partnership!”