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Startups Strut on Stage at UNC Innovation Showcase

Xconomy-Boston - Fri, 04/10/2015 - 12:25
Frank Vinluan

In an annual spring ritual at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, startup companies associated with the university get the opportunity for five minutes of stage time to present their technologies or products to a live audience. The UNC Innovation Showcase is a popular draw for the Research Triangle’s broader entrepreneurial community. Startups selected for the event get to pitch in front of potential partners, advisors, and even a handful of investors.

The companies that presented Thursday night were started by students, faculty, or alumni, or are based on technologies licensed from UNC. In previous years, the showcase featured enough companies to offer life sciences and healthcare presentations in a separate room from presentations in other fields. But this year, 16 UNC companies presented in succession from the same stage, grouped by company maturity.

The “Emerging Companies” group, consisting of the most mature of the UNC startups, featured three companies targeting the life sciences and healthcare:

Bivarus. The standard way that hospitals and physician clinics gather patient feedback is from surveys given on paper, or taken by phone. But the response rates for such surveys are low because no patient wants to sit through a 100-question survey, Bivarus CEO David Levin said. Durham, NC-based Bivarus offers a digital platform that can survey patients from their smartphones. The company has developed algorithms that dynamically determine which questions are the most important to ask. As a result, a patient needs to answer no more than 10 questions. In the healthcare facilities that have implemented the Bivarus software so far, Levin said that patient response rates have improved dramatically.

Levin said the opportunity for Bivarus comes in part from mandates that healthcare providers collect and analyze more information, including patient feedback. In February, Bivarus raised $1.9 million in Series A funding, which the company is using to boost its sales and marketing efforts. Levin said that Bivarus finished 2014 with $200,000 in revenue. The company now projects $1 million in annual recurring revenue by the end of this year. Bivarus was co-founded in 2012 by Seth Glickman, director of the Office of Population Health and Value at UNC Health Care, and Kevin Schulman, professor of medicine at Duke University.

Spyryx Biosciences. The thick, sticky, mucus produced by patients who have cystic fibrosis can be traced to their genes. A genetic mutation causes a structural change in a protein that regulates the absorption of fluid by cells in the lung, explained John Taylor, CEO of Spyryx. When this protein isn’t functioning properly, fluid moves away from the lung’s surface, resulting in the thick mucus that causes breathing problems and becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and foreign particles. Research Triangle Park, NC-based Spyryx is developing a therapy that would block the channel by which fluid moves from the lung surface. Spyryx’s technology comes from the research of Robert Tarran, a professor in UNC’s department of cell biology and physiology.

If it works, the Spyryx drug could offer an advantage over the Vertex (NASDAQ: VRTX) cystic fibrosis drug ivacaftor (Kalydeco), which only works on a small percentage of cystic fibrosis patients with a specific genetic mutation. Taylor said that the way the Spyryx drug works would apply to all cystic fibrosis patients, regardless of their genetic makeup. Spyryx also plans to target chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But it’s still early days for the company. Spyryx is conducting studies that would lead up to an investigational new drug application filing, which Taylor aims to file with the FDA in 2016. Spyryx is supported by $2 million in grant funding secured by Tarran’s lab. Taylor said he has also spoken with venture capitalists in his search for additional funding.

Symberix. Research is starting to reveal the ways that bacteria in the human body affect health. Symberix’s microbiome research is based on the understanding that the toxic effects of some drugs are caused by a drug’s interaction with gut bacteria. The Durham company is developing a compound that could eliminate the side effects of drugs without having an antibiotic effect on the microbiome. The two types of drugs that Symberix would like to make safer are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and the cancer drug irinotecan. Ward Peterson, co-founder, president, and CEO of Symberix, said that the gastrointestinal side effects caused by these drugs comes from a bacterial enzyme that produces toxic drug byproducts in the lower gastrointestinal tract. Symberix’s technology can inhibit this bacterial enzyme without harming the microbiome. The technology is based on the research of Matthew Redbino, a UNC professor of chemistry, biochemistry, and microbiology.

The opportunity for Symberix extends beyond anti-inflammatories and cancer drugs. Peterson said that the technology could eliminate side effects of other drugs in other indications. Symberix is financed by $3.5 million that was raised prior to the 2013 formation of the company. Peterson said Symberix has also received $300,000 in non-dilutive funding from the National Cancer Institute. The company aims to enter Phase 1 clinical trials in 2017.

Two other life sciences companies presented in the “Emerging Startups” group:

—Ribometrix. The biosciences company has developed a technology that allows researchers to analyze RNA to understand the role that RNA structure plays in biological processes and disease. Kevin Weeks, Ribometrix’s founder, said that the company has developed the technology into research kits for academic and industry researchers. Ribometrix already has a handful of customers in both industry and academia. The technology has also drawn interest from Cambridge, MA-based messenger RNA drug developer Moderna, which Weeks said has pumped $100,000 into the startup.

SIRSvision. The refraction part of an eye exam is a century-old procedure that is subjective, and relies on a patient’s ability to remember and compare images. SIRSvision has developed a system that allows eye doctors to present two images side by side. The Simultaneous Image Refraction System (SIRS) was designed to enhance eye refraction experience for patients by making the exam faster, more accurate, and less confusing. The system was developed to be retrofitted onto existing phoropters, the ophthalmic testing device used for refraction. SIRSvision has already filed for a patent on its system.

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Joi Ito Wants MIT to Be Neutral Place to Help Develop Bitcoin Standards

Xconomy-Boston - Fri, 04/10/2015 - 11:29
Robert Buderi

Bitcoins have an uncertain path forward with the seeming implosion of the Bitcoin Foundation last weekend. But PayPal merchants and even presidential candidate Rand Paul have started accepting them as payment. That means the race is on to establish technical standards for the virtual currency—and it looks like MIT could end up playing a role.

Joi Ito, famed director of the MIT Media Lab and a student of Bitcoins (see this long blog post he wrote in January comparing Bitcoins to the Internet), is close to unveiling a plan for the Institute to become what he calls an independent, neutral home to help with Bitcoin standards development. He is talking to some big MIT names to help with the plan, including cryptographer Ron Rivest of RSA Security fame and economist Simon Johnson, and says he expects to make a public announcement about the effort in the near future.

I met earlier this week with Ito, who has directed the Media Lab since the fall of 2011, for a short but wide-ranging interview. I plan to post more of our conversation next week, but one of the most interesting elements had to do with Bitcoins and alternative currencies. Ito did not reveal his plans in detail, but did share some core thoughts. He says the only other public mention of the idea came in a talk he gave at a Bitcoin Expo at MIT in March.

Jerry Brito, executive director of the non-profit Coin Center, a research and advocacy center focused on cryptocurrencies, tweeted at the time:

At #MITBTC15 @Joi proposes academic takeover of core development and governance? Semi-announces an MIT-led org.

Ito told me he got further stimulus for the idea from the fresh turmoil at the Bitcoin Foundation sparked by an April 4 forum post from board member Olivier Janssens. In the post, Janssens wrote that the non-profit foundation had been undermined by “2 years of ridiculous spending and poorly thought out decisions” and was “effectively bankrupt.”

As described by the International Business Times, the Bitcoin Foundation doesn’t oversee Bitcoins but is “the closest thing to a public face that the community has” and has been leading efforts to develop standards for the cryptocurrency and spur its adoption.

Ito thinks MIT might be a better venue to help develop those standards, or at least advance the discussion. He says the Janssens post pointed to a glaring hole in Bitcoin development—and that is that the protocols need to be developed in a neutral place, such as what happened with Internet standards.

“With Bitcoin, it was sort of on the Internet, but the financial interests got very involved before there was a lot of standards setting,” Ito says. “It’s going at hyper-speed, much faster than any other standards body. And you have the added problem that there’s a lot of money involved. Even the developers have lots of Bitcoin, right? What I’d like to do as a contribution from MIT—and this is one of my first forays into going Institute-wide from the beginning, by bringing Simon Johnson for the economics and Ron Rivest for the crypto—is to try to come up with a non-commercial, neutral place for academics to talk about Bitcoin.”

The Media Lab director says he has been moving fast since Janssens’s post. “I think within a couple of weeks we’ll be announcing something which will be a little bit more substantive. And I’m not pushing it, but I’m offering MIT as a neutral academic home for some of the conversations and the technical coordination. Which I think will give a lot more stability to Bitcoin, which right now is a little bit fragile.”

Ito stressed in our conversation and in a follow-up e-mail that he is not trying to grab control of Bitcoin efforts or be an overlord of sorts—rather, he is trying to “make ‘space’ for technical and standards conversations.”

“What I’m really trying to do is offer us as one of the neutral places to do this,” he says. “And I do think academia plays a role.”


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Tax Time Alert: Key Things to Know About Founders Preferred Stock

Xconomy-Boston - Fri, 04/10/2015 - 09:11
John Demeter

As you gather and review tax papers for your return, be sure to inform your accountant if you hold founders’ preferred stock, or if you sold a block of it in 2014.

Your CPA might not think to ask you about this because so few entrepreneurs hold this class of stock. As recently as 20 years ago, founders’ preferred stock (FPS) didn’t even exist. Lawyers for hot startups in high demand “invented” it to give founders a vehicle to pocket some cash by selling some of their equity in their wildly successful companies before they went public. That’s the type of transaction you need to share with your CPA now.

Many founders have heard about founders’ preferred stock, but fewer than 5 percent of companies that launch today have issued FPS to their founders. Those who do have it typically take a small portion of their equity holdings—less than 20 percent—in FPS. (The balance is common stock.) Nevertheless, all founders should understand its pros and cons so they can decide whether it’s worth fighting for.

FPS is, for all practical purposes, common stock with special conversion rights. It functions like ordinary founders’ common stock until it’s purchased by investors who are also buying preferred stock directly from the company. At that point of purchase, it converts automatically into preferred stock. Under any other conditions—a sale to any other purchaser in any other circumstance—it reverts, like Cinderella at midnight, back to common stock. It also reverts to common stock if the company is acquired or goes public.

Some founders like holding FPS because they can sell a few shares when the company is raising money in a preferred stock financing: they further dilute their ownership stake, but they get to pocket the cash themselves rather than having it go to the company the way the proceeds from the sale of other preferred stock do. FPS therefore gives them the option to pull capital from their startup without a liquidity event like a merger or public offering. They can bypass some tax-related headaches, too: When an investor buys FPS as part of a preferred stock financing, FPS converts to the preferred stock with few of the tax and accounting complexities that arise in repurchase, buyback, or exchange transactions with a founder.

Investors may be willing to buy FPS if it’s the only way to get a bigger piece of a hot company. But they are more likely to be leery of startups where founders hold this special stock. Some view the founders’ insistence on FPS as a warning sign that that leadership is hedging its bets. Instead of being fanatical about growing their business, they’re already contemplating how to secure a payout. A founder holding FPS can also make an otherwise straightforward deal more complex than it needs to be. Securing funding is a challenge even under the best of circumstances. Why make it easier for prospective investors to turn you down?

Not all founders want FPS, despite its cachet in some circles. They might not need the cash thanks to a successful exit or two already under their belts. They may not want to spend the time and money to hammer out the relevant clauses when they’re incorporating their company. Or they might have no plan to sell any part of their company until a major liquidity event. Sometimes legal questions have easy, straightforward answers. More often, they don’t. This is one of those cases. If you’re weighing whether FPS makes sense for your business and your future, think through these questions and then discuss them with a trusted legal advisor:

  • What is my vision for this startup? Am I planning to sell it in a few years for a few million dollars and then move on to something else? Or do I want the option of accessing cash during the long haul?
  • Will I want or need to extract money from my startup? Do I have some major expenses coming up—such as buying a house or paying tuition—that will require ready cash? Or do I have assets I can more easily tap?
  • Are investors likely to buy my FPS? Would they rather put their money back into my company than allow me to pull out cash for my personal use?
  • What tax burden will I face when I sell my shares? That’s a question you absolutely should ask your CPA or financial planner.
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Major Economic Indicators Latest Numbers

Consumer Price Index (CPI):
+0.2% in Feb 2015
News Release
Historical Data

Unemployment Rate:
5.5% in Mar 2015
News Release
Historical Data

Payroll Employment:
+126,000(p) in Mar 2015
News Release
Historical Data

Average Hourly Earnings:
+$0.07(p) in Mar 2015
News Release
Historical Data

Producer Price Index - Final Demand:
-0.5%(p) in Feb 2015
News Release
Historical Data

Employment Cost Index (ECI):
+0.6% in 4th Qtr of 2014
News Release
Historical Data

-2.2%(r) in 4th Qtr of 2014
News Release
Historical Data

U.S. Import Price Index:
-0.3% in Mar 2015
News Release
Historical Data

U.S. Export Price Index:
+0.1% in Mar 2015
News Release
Historical Data

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Seven Takeaways From “What’s Hot in Boston Biotech”

Xconomy-Boston - Fri, 04/10/2015 - 00:01
Ben Fidler

Sure, things may look great now, but it wasn’t long ago that Kendall Square was a biotech ghost town—and the good times might come to an end if we’re not careful. Meanwhile, gene therapy, cell therapy, and microbiome research look poised to make an impact on healthcare—just don’t overlook the hurdles that remain, or underestimate how long it’ll take to clear them.

In other words, we’re making progress. But people should be realistic about that progress—biotech isn’t as easy as making iPhones.

That was a thread that pervaded “What’s Hot in Boston Biotech,” our latest event, at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard this week. A cadre of the area’s top scientists, entrepreneurs, and investors went over some of the ups, downs, and issues still-to-come for several emerging (and re-emerging) areas of life sciences innovation. Some examples: could carrier testing be a threat to gene therapy? What discovery is synthetic biology whiz and MIT professor James Collins most intrigued by? And why is the concept of “precision medicine” really just the start of a long slog that might reshape drug development?

A huge thank you to our speakers and moderators: David Altshuler of Vertex Pharmaceuticals; Susan Lindquist of the Whitehead Institute; MIT’s Collins; Noubar Afeyan of Flagship Ventures; Alexis Borisy of Third Rock Ventures; Tony Coles of Yumanity Therapeutics; Samantha Singer of the Broad Institute; Olivier Danos and Adam Koppel of Biogen; Michelle Dipp of OvaScience; Peter Kolchinsky of RA Capital; Marian Nakada of Johnson & Johnson Innovation; Amir Nashat of Polaris Partners; Bernat Olle of PureTech; Steve Paul of Voyager Therapeutics; Ben Auspitz of Fidelity Biosciences; and Chuck Wilson of Unum Therapeutics.

Thanks also to our event hosts, Biogen and the Broad Institute; our event sponsors, American Laboratory Trading, Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, Cote Orphan, and Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo; and to Keith Spiro of KeithSpiroPhoto for the photos (those will be coming soon).

This was a blowout event, a tough one to recap, so here are just a few snippets—seven in total—to whet your appetite for next time.

1. Be on the lookout for the latest startup out of Jim Collins’s lab at MIT. Collins is already behind a few synthetic biology startups, Sample6 and Synlogic. What’s next? He described a technology capable of opening up a cell, extracting the machinery, slapping it on paper, and freeze drying it—after which it could be stored at room temperature until it’s rehydrated, when that cellular machinery would function “as if it’s inside a living cell” again. Collins says this technology could be used in several ways—like cheap, quick diagnostics for antibiotic resistance, oral vaccines, or as therapeutic peptides or proteins. “That last one is probably the one I’m most excited about, for sure,” Collins said.

2. “I chose to go into neurodegenerative diseases because they were the darn hardest.” That was Susan Lindquist on Yumanity’s decision to target things like Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—biologically complex diseases which have stupefied scientists for decades—with its yeast-based drug discovery system. It’s a tall order, and Lindquist and co-founder Tony Coles know they’re taking a risk.

As Coles said, “When I die, what will be on my tombstone, will it be that I held some great jobs? Or that I wanted to make a difference?” That means Yumanity will face some skeptics. As Peter Kolchinsky questioned, are today’s animal models—which often fall short of representing human neurological disease—even good enough to validate the things Yumanity finds, or will the company just “take a leap of faith” that what it sees in cells will translate to humans? “If you have a defined patient population in which you know that that compound is fixing that patient’s [disease], I think it very well will be possible to go directly into patients—as long as you’ve done your toxicity studies,” Lindquist responded.

3. CAR-T therapy is promising, but the hurdles remaining are significant. As Chuck Wilson noted, most of the exciting data generated by chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (or CAR-T) therapy so far have come from small indications—specific types of blood cancers like acute lymphoblastic leukemia, not much more prevalent cancers of the breast and lung. How broadly effective can it be? How can it be … Next Page »

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Clypd Raises $19.4M, Gets Boost From European Broadcaster and TiVo

Xconomy-Boston - Thu, 04/09/2015 - 17:16
Michael Davidson

Clypd, a Boston-area startup that wants to make TV advertising more like its digital cousin by incorporating programmatic ad selling, has raised a $19.4 million Series B round, the company announced Thursday.

Leading the round is the RTL Group, a European media and broadcasting company. TiVo, the pioneer in digital video recording, joined the round, as did Atlas Venture, Data Point Capital, Duke University, Transmedia Capital, and Western Technology Investment. All told, Clypd has raised $30 million since it was founded in 2012.

Programmatic advertising, which automates the ad-buying process and includes real-time bidding on advertising space, has revolutionized digital advertising, and Clypd is trying to ensure it does the same for television broadcasting. The total spent on buying airtime for TV ads is massive, with $74 billion spent in the U.S. and $220 billion spent worldwide.

Clypd lets television networks and media companies such as Cox, Discovery, and Univision—they’re on what the industry calls the sell side—market airtime to ad buyers. The company said it also provides customers with data about who sees their adds and automates the ad-selling process.

Clypd will use the money to fund an across-the-board expansion, it said in a release. It also plans to grow in Europe and Asia.

It’s easy to see why RTL would be interested in that approach, as the company owns 52 TV channels in Europe. Investing in Clypd is RTL’s second big play in programmatic advertising. Last year, RTL paid $144 million to buy a majority stake in SpotXchange, a programmatic advertising startup based outside Denver. SpotXchange specializes in helping online publishers sell space for video advertising.

TiVo is also an interesting investor, seeing how it brought software to television and up-ended the TV world (and advertising) by allowing viewers to skip through ads. It characterizes its strategic investment in Clypd as a chance to take advantage of some of the changes it has created.

“Clypd is moving the industry forward by enabling data-driven TV ad sales and delivering actionable insights. We are at a turning point in advertising and Clypd has the potential to help TV media owners understand their inventory and audiences in a way never done before,” TiVo’s chief research officer Jonathan Steuer said in a statement.

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Event-Linking App Stanza Expands with $4.3M Seed Funding

Xconomy-Boston - Thu, 04/09/2015 - 10:30
David Holley

Stanza, a tool that lets users sync calendar events and allows hosts to update the events in real time, has received a $4.3 million seed funding round to help it expand its target audience beyond professional sports events.

The funding came from Metamorphic Ventures, Founder Collective, Tekton Ventures, Western Technology Investment, and Stanford-StartX Fund, as well as angel investors that include former NFL players Ronnie Lott and Harris Barton.

Previously focused on professional sports, the company’s existing customers include the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sirius XM Radio, and the Boston Breakers. Now, the Stanza is trying to gain users who plan any type of event, from a cooking class to a school field trip, the company said in a statement.

When the attendee of an event—for example, a person planning to go to a cooking class—clicks Stanza’s “add to calendar” button on the event’s website or through an e-mail invitation or newsletter, Stanza syncs the event to the attendee’s personal calendar.  The Redwood City, CA-based company, formerly known as, allows the event host to update aspects of it, such as the time or location. A cooking class could update the event listing with recipes from the class, or other services could be added to encourage additional sales, Stanza said in a statement.

The company said it’s charging $7 per month for the first year for people who sign up through the late summer. After that, the price will increase to $15 per month.

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Edge Brings in VC Backers, Gets $72.5M For Head Injury Drug

Xconomy-Boston - Thu, 04/09/2015 - 09:22
Ben Fidler

With former Celgene CEO Sol Barer and famed MIT professor Bob Langer among its advisors and directors, Edge Therapeutics has always had some star power behind it. Now the Berkeley Heights, NJ-based startup has a big investor syndicate too.

Edge revealed today that it’s closed two different financing rounds together worth about $72.5 million: a $56 million Series C-2 in April, and a $16.5 million C-1 round in December. The C-2 gives Edge a much different look. Since inception, it’s been backed by a group of unnamed “high net worth individuals.” Now it’s got a broad syndicate of investors more typical of a growing biotech startup: Venrock, Sofinnova Ventures, New Leaf Ventur Partners, BioMed Ventures, Franklin Templeton, and Janus Funds all took part in the $56 million April round.

These financings are part of a Series C round that started with an $18 million deal in June 2013.

Edge executives weren’t immediately available for comment on Thursday, but according to a press release the company is using the cash to push forward a drug it’s been developing to combat potentially deadly delayed effects of aneurysms and severe head injuries. One of the risks patients have after doctors repair an aneurysm, for instance, is what’s known as a cerebral vasospasm, a narrowing of the arteries of the brain that can lead to life-threatening complications. Doctors typically try to prevent this from happening by giving people a nimodipine, a pill approved by the FDA more than two decades ago.

Edge contends that this drug is flawed; patients can’t get the right dose without dangerous side effects like low blood pressure. So it’s made an injectable sustained-release form called EG-1962 that’s administered right after surgery, and meant to be released over the course of 21 days. This reformulation approach is the type of thing Edge aims to do to improve other old, already-approved drugs. It’s a way of reducing the inherent risk and expenses in drug development.

Edge has been testing EG-1962 in a small early-stage study, and says that so far it’s seen encouraging signs that the drug is helping people recover from aneurysms better than nimodipine. Edge presented preliminary results from that study in February, and will add more updated data in mid-2015. It’ll use the new cash—and the help of its new VC investors—to finish that study and prep for a pivotal trial, the last needed before asking the FDA for approval.

“This significant financing from a sophisticated syndicate of leading life sciences investors is a transformative event for Edge,” said Barer, Celgene’s former CEO and Edge’s chairman. “We welcome the new members of our Board of Directors, whose deep experience in both venture capital and specifically in biotechnology will be invaluable as Edge continues to grow into a fully integrated biotechnology company.”

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Pitching Startups, Roxbury Style: Apps, Bodyguards & More

Xconomy-Boston - Thu, 04/09/2015 - 00:01
View the Slideshow Michael Fitzgerald

There’s a parking space, despite the rain, right outside Hibernian Hall the night of Pitch in the City, Roxbury’s first startup pitch event, in late March. “Some event,” I mutter to myself as I go inside.

In fact, the big hall on the 3rd floor is jammed with people. Coats cram the coat rack, and dozens of people line up for artisan pizza and salad from Haley House Bakery and Café, a neighborhood social enterprise that among other things provides jobs for ex-cons. The beer is Dot Ale 1630, the Dorchester brew from Percival Brewing Company, a local label whose founder, Filipe E. Oliveira, is pouring. Oliveira says he’s shipping 600 cases of beer every two months, brewed by a contract brewery. He wants to start his own brewery.

“Why aren’t you pitching?” I ask.

“That’s a good question,” he says.

Pitch in the City is a little bit of Cambridge, MA, in Dudley Square. The entrepreneurs who are pitching have startups mostly from Smarter in the City, Roxbury’s first high-tech accelerator and one of the nation’s few minority-focused accelerators. The other entrepreneurs have been through or are part of MassChallenge or Future Boston Alliance’s accelerator. They’ll pitch their companies to a panel of potential investors and advisors, led by Steve Rogers, a lecturer on entrepreneurial finance at his alma mater, Harvard Business School. Smarter in The City got started in 2014 and has funding from several foundations, the Small Business Administration, and Brightcove and Microsoft.

Among the “goodies” up for grabs: consulting advice, mentoring, a potential slot in Northeastern University’s accelerator and, possibly, an investment. The most tweeted company will get a $250 prize.

Sandra Casagrand, co-publisher of The Bay State Banner, which is sponsoring the event along with Northeastern, introduces Rogers and the other judges, who sit on the stage above the microphone where the pitches will be made. As the first founders walk up to make their pitch, she delays them for a moment. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” she says, “so let me say, Hello Sharks!”

The brinksmanship of “Shark Tank” will be lacking; no money or equity will exchange hands, at least this night. There will be direct questions, though. Rogers is particularly fond of “How will you make money?” and, sometimes, “How much revenue do you have?”

One of the pitchers is Toni Oloko, an 18-year old from Braintree. He got into the University of Pennsylvania but deferred for a year to start PracticeGigs, a smartphone app aimed initially at helping tennis players find practice partners, who can charge for their time. “We’ve had a lot of interest for doing the same thing in music, chess, other sports like soccer, golf, and lacrosse, even a weird thing like Super Mario Smash Bros. I got e-mail about that,” he says during his pitch. His app is about three weeks from launching.

Oloko may be 18, but he is not cowed by pitching. He is the only one to appeal to the crowd, saying, “If anyone likes this idea, please Tweet at us and give us a vote!”

There are moments that will not take place at most other accelerator pitch events. At one point, three large men approach the microphone. The smallest, in a sport coat and collared shirt, is flanked by two men in hoodies, one emblazoned with a menacing-looking logo of a gun sight and the words “” The man in the sport coat starts his pitch.

“I’m Darius McCroey, and these are my bodyguards.”

The crowd cracks up. In fact they’re his co-founders, Brandon Matthews and Greg Valentino Ball, and aims to create a multicultural music and entertainment business focused initially on content.

While many of the businesses being pitched aim at minority communities, some do not. PracticeGigs, for one. True Moringa uses oils and food products sourced from the moringa tree, with production in Ghana, but marketed to anyone. Another, Civica, makes software to open up election data.

The last pitch comes from an entrepreneur trying to address one of high-tech’s glaring problems: why so few minorities work in the industry. Melissa James, CEO of Tech Connection, tells the judges that when she worked in recruiting at Google, “I recruited for underrepresented talent. I looked for diversity candidates.” She tells them most candidates didn’t have the right work experience. What frustrated her was that as a company representative, she couldn’t tell them the things she knew they needed to do to get hired there. So she started a company to help blacks, Hispanics, and women learn how to get high-tech jobs. She wants money to develop something like Khan Academy videos for high-tech minority jobseekers.

“What’s your revenue model?” Rogers asks. He gets James to tell him that she is charging about $100 an hour to do targeted job searches, and has made $30,000 since December.

After the panel grills her for a while, Rogers says, “I would tell you you were trying to climb up a hill with oil all over it. But what we’ve seen recently with Reverend Jackson and Intel means you have an opportunity to build this.” He’s referring to the public shamings of the high-tech industry led by Reverend Jesse Jackson, which have gotten companies like Facebook and Google to publish their diversity data, and to Intel’s announcement that it will spend $300 million to make its technical and management ranks more diverse.

James, whose company is arguably the least developed of any that were pitched, winds up the night’s big winner. She gets free consulting from both Rogers and from the African-American Student Union at Harvard Business School. Molly Gittens, founder of More Advertising, offers mentoring, as does Glynn Lloyd, CEO of CityFresh Foods and managing director of the Boston Impact Initiative. Aaron Green, who runs Professional Staffing Group and PSG Ventures, also offers mentoring and suggests he might want to invest. Northeastern University offers her legal services from its Community Business Clinic and space in its on-campus accelerator, IDEA.

Oloko gets an offer for mentoring from Lloyd, who plays tennis. He also wins the most-tweeted award.

He walks out of Hibernian Hall holding an envelope containing $250. In cash.

“Can you believe it?” he says as he steps into the rainy night. “They gave me cash. I’m not declaring this. The IRS will never know!”

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FirstFuel Refuels with $23M to Develop Software for Utilities

Xconomy-Boston - Wed, 04/08/2015 - 12:20
Michael Davidson

Some people tend to think of smart meters, solar panels, and energy audits in the same way they think about home improvements. But the owners of commercial property such as office buildings, shopping centers, and warehouses are taking a growing interest in renewable technology as a way to cut their electric bills.

Utilities know that, and they’re looking for software companies that can help them understand and sell new products to those customers. One beneficiary of that is FirstFuel, a Lexington, MA-based company. FirstFuel announced Wednesday it has raised $23 million in a Series C round. With the new funds, FirstFuel has now raised a total of $45 million since its founding in 2010.

FirstFuel makes software that utilities can use to analyze the energy consumption patterns of their commercial and industrial customers. FirstFuel’s customers can then use the data to sell new products and services to customers, and offer energy efficiency and demand management programs.

The idea is similar to what Opower and Tendril are attempting to do, but unlike those companies, FirstFuel is focused on commercial buildings such as offices, stores, warehouses, and industrial properties.

Over the past few years, most discussions of smart grids, smart meters, and other technology to improve energy efficiency have focused on the residential market. But commercial customers make up a huge percentage of utilities’ clientele, and that means there is a huge business opportunity for startups that can help utilities sell new services or improve energy efficiency for those customers, FirstFuel CEO Swapnil Shah said. About 20 percent of the $1 trillion spent per year on energy goes to commercial buildings, he said.

FirstFuel wants to capitalize on that, but there’s a catch—commercial buildings have much different energy usage profiles than homes, and there’s a much greater variation between an office building, mall, and warehouse than there is between single-family homes, Shah said. So FirstFuel has focused on designing software able to analyze the data those properties generate. He believes it can help utilities and energy providers understand customers to a degree they’ve never been able to before.

Until now, Shah said, utilities didn’t know much about their customers, in part because they didn’t have to—there was virtually no competition in the industry as most utilities were privately owned and regulated monopolies, or owned and run by municipalities. Deregulation intended to spur competition has led utilities to market themselves, and new technologies such as affordable solar panels mean there are new products and services utilities can sell, and potential new revenue streams as they try to become the central conduit and supplier for customers, Shah said.

That’s led utilities to a place where they’ve learned a basic business truth almost every other industry knows.

“You can’t serve the customer if you can’t understand the customer,” Shah said, and utilities are recognizing that and have become interested in customer intelligence software from companies such as FirstFuel.

It’s all part of “a sea change” in the industry that’s creating a new market for energy services and software. Navigant, an industry analysis firm, expects that amount to reach about $14 billion this year.

Shah and his investors expect that amount to grow substantially. Next World Capital led the round and is a new investor, along with Electranova Capital. Next World partner Tom Rikert will join FirstFuel’s board. Prior investors, including Battery Ventures, Rockport Capital, Nth Power, and E.ON, a Germany-based electric utility, also participated in the round.

Rikert said Next World Capital is backing FirstFuel because its sees the global utility and electric industries as being on the verge of a transformation. In addition to deregulation, new technologies, and new business models, the traditionally very slow moving industry is finally adopting software-as-a-service and big data.

His firm only backs enterprise software companies, and that’s what Rikert views FirstFuel as—a SaaS company that just happens to be in utilities, which means it won’t be susceptible to the booms and busts that seem to plague the energy and cleantech industries.

The new cash will be used to help FirstFuel expand its market reach and deepen relationships with existing customers, Shah said. FirstFuel currently is focusing on the domestic market, but plans to reach into Europe are in the works. It has about 25 customers, including utilities and government bodies such as the U.S. Department of Defense and the General Services Administration, which manages the federal government’s buildings.

Currently, FirstFuel compiles data from more than 1 million meters, and its energy audit software has identified projects that could account for $400 million in savings, Shah said.

If all goes according to plan, within about 5 years FirstFuel will have compiled the largest database about commercial buildings’ energy use. Shah calls that a “treasure trove of data” just about any utility or energy service provider would want to tap into.

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Pixability Pumps Up in Video Marketing With $18M More

Xconomy-Boston - Wed, 04/08/2015 - 09:11
Gregory T. Huang

It’s been a long, interesting ride for Boston-based Pixability, a video marketing startup led by founder and CEO Bettina Hein (pictured). Now the market may finally be ready for the startup’s technology.

The company has just raised an $18 million Series C round led by Jump Capital and Edison Partners. The new money brings Pixability’s total raised to about $28 million.

The deal coincides with trends that have been building for years: advertising dollars are shifting from TV to online media, and digital video is becoming increasingly prevalent in daily life.

Those trends have driven Pixability to move away from its early model of helping small businesses make marketing videos, and towards working with big brands and agencies to optimize their video ad-buying and marketing campaigns. The company’s customers now include L’Oréal USA, Puma, Viacom, and Publicis Groupe.

“Our technology proves the business value of a data-driven video marketing strategy,” Hein says in a statement. “We predict online video’s dominance will expand further over the next few years as more consumers cut the cord, and more providers offer over-the-top services.”

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Alzheon Gets $10M to Take Castoff Alzheimer’s Drug Into Pivotal Test

Xconomy-Boston - Wed, 04/08/2015 - 06:55
Ben Fidler

Run by a veteran of drug R&D for Alzheimer’s disease, Alzheon is betting that a smart trial design and a little chemistry work could turn a failed drug for the memory-robbing disorder into a success.

The company now has its first round of financing to test that theory on a revamped version of tramiprosate, which washed out of clinical trials several years ago. Its $10 million Series A round will help it get closer to a Phase 3 trial, where so many Alzheimer’s drugs have crashed and burned in the past.

The financing was led by Ally Bridge Group, a Hong Kong-based private equity group, and other unnamed new and existing backers. In conjunction with the round, Alzheon is moving its headquarters to Framingham, MA, from Lexington.

Alzheon president and CEO Martin Tolar says the company will spend the next six months “fine tun[ing]” things, like developing a once-a-day pill of its drug, now called ALZ-801. Then it’s on to a Phase 2/3 trial, which Alzheon aims to start by the end of the year. The $10 million will get Alzheon to that point—Tolar says Alzheon plans to raise more cash later this year to push through the coming trial.

The cash represents the first significant financing round for Alzheon since it emerged from stealth in October 2013. Former Pfizer, CoMentis and Knome executive Tolar formed the company with former colleagues John Hey and Mark Versavel. Their plan: target stalled Alzheimer’s drug programs that have already showed potential in clinical trials, refine them, and find the specific patient groups they might work best for.

The idea is to reduce the risk, expense, and development time involved in Alzheimer’s drug development, which has seen billions of dollars in research and little in the way of approved drugs to show for it. Tolar puts the company’s potential expenses for a pivotal study in the “tens of millions [of dollars],” a “fraction” of what it would cost to develop an Alzheimer’s drug from scratch.

ALZ-801 is Alzheon’s first attempt to prove this approach can work. The startup picked up ALZ-801 through a licensing deal with Quebec-based Bellus Health, formerly known as Neurochem.

Several years ago, Neurochem tested tramiprosate—a chemically modified form of the amino acid taurine naturally found in seaweed—in a 2,000-patient, late-stage trial for people with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s. Tramiprosate binds to beta amyloid, a protein that misfolds and clumps up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The so-called “amyloid hypothesis,” which has driven much of Alzheimer’s drug development in this century, holds that removing the plaques would improve patients’ lives.

But that hasn’t held true in big tests, including Neurochem’s study. While tramiprosate was safe to use, it failed to improve cognitive function in a statistically significant way. Neurochem later morphed into Bellus, with a focus on orphan diseases, and flipped the tramiprosate program—and all the data the drug accrued over time—to Alzheon for an undisclosed sum. (Bellus will earn royalties should Alzheon succeed.)

Alzheon has made modifications, creating what’s known as a “prodrug”—an inactive substance that machinery in the body converts into a drug—that Alzheon believes will perform better than the original tramiprosate.

Tolar says a major reason tramiprosate failed is “subject variability”—the drug affected different people unpredictably, “blunting” its overall effectiveness in the Neurochem studies. Alzheon believes it has solved that problem with a version designed to last much longer in the body and avoid that unpredictability, he says.

The startup also dug through Bellus’s old tramiprosate data and found that people with a variant of the Apolipoprotein E gene called ApoE4—which puts them at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s—improved on standardized scores (such as the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale-cognitive subscale) testing their cognition after 78 weeks, compared to placebo.

Alzheon also says in previous Phase 3 testing, tramiprosate didn’t cause edema in the brain, which is swelling caused by leaky blood vessels that has been seen in a number of antibody drugs that, like tramiprosate, aimed to clear out amyloid plaques.

This edema is one of the red flags that Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) saw in data from its own recently released Alzheimer’s study, and a reason Biogen might have to use a lower dose of its drug going forward.

Tolar says the most significant side effects in Bellus’s tramiprosate program were gastrointestinal problems (like nausea and vomiting), which Alzheon believes its prodrug approach will help. The implication—which hasn’t been proven yet—is that ALZ-801 will be just as safe as tramiprosate, and at least just as effective at slowing cognitive decline in ApoE4 carriers (about 40 percent of people with late-onset Alzheimer’s have a copy of the ApoE4 variant, according to the National Institute on Aging). Alzheon will exclusively target those patients in the coming trial.

“We just need to run a very streamlined, straightforward study to confirm [what was seen with tramoprisate]—that’s it,” Tolar says.

Photo “My Mother’s Hands” courtesy of Ann Gordon via a Creative Commons license.

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Placester Adds $15M to Expand in Real Estate Marketing

Xconomy-Boston - Tue, 04/07/2015 - 09:00
Gregory T. Huang

One of the Boston area’s fast-growing software startups is making progress in real estate marketing. Placester says today it has raised a $15 million Series B round, which brings its total funding to about $23 million.

The round was led by New Enterprise Associates (a new investor), and previous investor Romulus Capital also participated. Placester CEO and co-founder Matt Barba says the company will grow from 50 to 100 employees in the next year.

Placester went through the Techstars Boston accelerator program in 2011 and developed software for real estate agents to run their own websites. It started out with a monthly subscription model, but has since moved into the more lucrative advertising and marketing realm.

The company provides software that helps real estate agents and brokers not only list properties but also use marketing tools through Facebook and Google AdWords. As of last year, the company was also targeting local media publishers to host property listings.

Placester’s approach to real estate is very different from that of bigger names like Zillow, Redfin, and Trulia, which have become destination sites for a national audience. But real estate professionals spend billions of dollars a year on marketing, so there is a clear opportunity.

The startup “addresses a dire need in this massive market by helping agents and brokers make this shift to digital without having to become IT professionals,” says Chetan Puttagunta, a partner at NEA who has joined Placester’s board along with his colleague Ravi Viswanathan.

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Juno, Novartis End CAR-T Patent Fight, With Juno A Little Richer

Xconomy-Boston - Mon, 04/06/2015 - 16:56
Alex Lash

Juno Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JUNO) and Novartis (NYSE: NVS) are cancer immunotherapy rivals, but Juno now has a rooting interest in Novartis’s success.

The two companies said today they have avoided a trial and settled a patent dispute around a specific bit of genetic engineering shared by some of their products that use what’s known as chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR-T) technology. With the settlement, Novartis will pay Seattle-based Juno $12.25 million immediately and add more payments down the road, including royalties if the Swiss drug maker’s lead CAR-T product comes to market.

“It gives us a bit more of a diversified revenue stream,” said Juno chief financial officer Steve Harr. “We wish Novartis luck and we’ll share their benefit, but we’ll be focused on our drugs.”

Both companies are working to develop cancer treatments based on a patient’s own immune cells, what’s known as chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) immunotherapy. When researchers extract a patient’s T cells and engineer them to be better cancer fighters, they give the cells an extra boost, called a costimulatory signaling domain, which helps them break past a cancer cell’s defenses. One kind of costimulatory domain, known as 4-1BB, was at the heart of the settled dispute, according to Harr.

Some of Juno’s CAR-T programs use 4-1BB, and Novartis’s lead program, CTL019, uses it as well. (The “19″ refers to the cancer protein, CD19, that the T cells recognize and attack.) The 4-1BB domain isn’t the only way to soup up a T cell, and Juno is experimenting with others; but Harr noted that 4-1BB seems to help T cells with “persistence,” that is, to stay in the body and fight cancer longer.

Novartis spokesman Eric Althoff sent Xconomy a statement that read, in part, “Under the litigation settlement, all of the parties['] claims are dismissed, and Novartis is licensed to continue research, development and commercialization of CTL019 and subsequent CART-19 therapy programs that may be within the scope of the patent that was the subject of the litigation…. With the litigation behind us, we can focus on bringing this important therapy to patients.”

The patent fight was in fact a proxy battle. It began as a dispute between St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, and the University of Pennsylvania. A researcher at St. Jude patented the 4-1BB technology and shared it with Penn researchers, with conditions. That arrangement, however, led to back-and-forth charges, and in late 2013, Juno jumped in to take the reins from St. Jude, as well as a license to its patent for $25 million upfront. As Juno was preparing to launch in late 2013 with work drawn from three academic centers, it became clear that to use 4-1BB with CAR-T that attacked CD-19 cancers, “the St. Jude patent was imperative,” said Harr.

Novartis, which by then was Penn’s exclusive partner, soon took up Penn’s side of the battle.

When Juno’s involvement in the case was first disclosed, the plan was to share 30 percent of litigation-related proceeds with St. Jude. Harr declined to say whether that arrangement holds true today. Whatever the split, if Novartis brings CTL019 to market, those proceeds could be substantial. In addition to the upfront and undisclosed milestone payments, Novartis will pay Juno mid-single digit royalties from U.S. net sales of products related to the case, and a low double digit percentage of the royalties that Novartis pays to Penn.

The upfront payment of $12.25 million alone seems to have compensated Juno for its efforts. In recent regulatory filings, the company said it spent about $10 million on the case through the end of 2014.

Juno raised hundreds of millions of dollars privately, and then saw its December 2014 IPO break biotech records, but every dollar still helps. The company is likely two or three years, minimum, from generating its own revenues (if its products indeed gain approval), and it has big spending plans this year. It is looking to move into new Seattle headquarters, and it plans to expand from its current six clinical products to 10—with some in multiple trials—by the end of March 2016.

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Boston’s Chef Nightly Helps Pick Dinner, and Delivers It Too

Xconomy-Boston - Mon, 04/06/2015 - 12:00
David Holley

It’s easier than ever to have premade food delivered to your doorstep, with any number of apps from Seamless to Favor to Instacart offering to bring customers almost anything they want. But what about those of us who have a tough time deciding what you want to eat?

Every Labs has made an app, Chef Nightly, for those of us who just can’t decide what to order when faced with dozens of menu items. The Boston company’s app uses artificial intelligence to suggest personalized meals that are made at local restaurants and delivered in 30 to 45 minutes, says founder Michael Sheeley. Each meal costs $12, which includes delivery and tip.

The app passively learns what customers like as they order more frequently, rather than requiring people to answer a list of questions about their preferences, Sheeley said. A first order will give people options of the most popular cuisines based on their neighborhood and the most popular food items based on those cuisines, he said.

In Chef Nightly’s beta testing, which has lasted the last three weeks, first-time users completed their orders in 29 seconds on average, he said. Part of the value in the app is that it makes the whole process of ordering and delivery—already substantially easier than it once was—even less complicated, Sheeley said.

“It learns your life and dislikes,” he said. “It learns your schedule, so when you get hungry, the app knows what you like and what you’re interested in that time.”

The app sends nightly alerts, asking if you’re interested in having the pizza that you normally order on Wednesdays, for example, delivered again, Sheeley said. It gets better at knowing what food you like the more frequently you order, he said.

Sheeley, who previously co-founded fitness tracking app RunKeeper, has received backing from an array of people in the startup community, including Blade, the venture-creation outfit founded by former Kayak CTO Paul English, Chase Garbarino of BostInno, Jason Robins of DraftKings, Jordan Fliegel of CoachUp, and Jeremy Levine of Draft, among others. He is not disclosing how much the company has raised.

The margins for Sheeley’s business are low, which means customers must order frequently to make the business succeed, he said. The company also plans to scale nationally in 2016. It made the product available today on Android and iOS in Boston today.

“We make a great product that people love, they’ll come back to us,” Sheeley said.

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Is Disney-DraftKings a Done Deal? $250M Reasons to Say “No Comment”

Xconomy-Boston - Mon, 04/06/2015 - 10:26
David Holley

Disney appears to be making a bet with DraftKings, the Boston startup that lets users make fantasy sports bets on a daily, per-game basis.

The entertainment conglomerate’s wager is a little more substantial than a guess about a basketball or football player’s performance; Disney is investing $250 million in DraftKings and its digital media tool, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

In return for the investment, DraftKings has agreed to commit more than $500 million to spend on advertising on platforms of ESPN, the sports network owned by Disney, the Journal reported, citing people familiar with the situation. DraftKings operates in a sector that has been expanding, with companies such as FantasyHub, the Louisville, KY-based company that was selected by the 2015 Techstars Austin program, offering players a way to donate to charity and win cash prizes. DraftKings’ biggest rival, FanDuel, is backed by Comcast Ventures and NBC Sports Group, among others.

DraftKings had a busy 2014, making at least two acquisitions and landing a $41 million round of funding, after previously raising $35 million. The company’s investors include Atlas Venture, GGV Capital, and Redpoint Ventures. The Journal says the Disney investment values the company at $900 million.

DraftKings and ESPN both declined to comment on the report. A current investor in DraftKings, reached by e-mail, called the Journal report “not accurate.” The investor, who replied on condition of anonymity, did not clarify what was inaccurate or reply to follow-up messages.

Players using DraftKings pick players they think will perform the best on a daily or weekly basis, and can potentially win cash if they pick the athletes who do the best. That compares with traditional fantasy sports, where players manage a team of players over an entire season. The company’s “betting” is legal because fantasy sports are considered games of skill under federal law, DraftKings says.

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Gene Therapy’s Rebirth Continues With Bristol, UniQure Cardio Deal

Xconomy-Boston - Mon, 04/06/2015 - 09:19
Ben Fidler

There’s no doubt at this point that gene therapy research, after a decade proceeding in relative obscurity, is back. A host of companies are racing to find the best way to harness the science to treat hemophilia, for instance. But a deal this morning between Bristol-Myers Squibb and UniQure focuses on a wider set of diseases—and is the broadest bet Big Pharma has made to date in the field’s resurgence.

New York-based Bristol (NYSE: BMY) this morning struck a wide-ranging alliance with UniQure (NASDAQ: QURE), the Dutch firm responsible for the world’s only approved gene therapy product (Glybera). Through the deal, Bristol has grabbed a license to gene therapies UniQure is developing for several cardiovascular diseases, among them congestive heart failure, and potentially other disorders as well. In total, Bristol and UniQure may team up on ten gene therapy targets, starting with a heart function regulator called S100A1 that is implicated in congestive heart failure.

Bristol is paying UniQure $50 million in cash and at least $32 million in equity up front. (Bristol is buying 4.9 percent of UniQure’s shares at $33.84 apiece, a roughly 50 percent premium to their $22.86 closing price on Friday.) It will pay another $15 million within three months when three gene therapy targets are selected. Bristol has agreed to buy another 5 percent of UniQure by the end of the year at a 10 percent premium, along with warrants for yet another 10 percent of the company at a premium based on more targets being introduced into the deal.

UniQure could also get $254 million in future payments for the congestive heart failure program, and $217 million apiece for each other gene therapy to come from the deal. Those figures don’t include unspecified milestones tied to net sales, or royalty streams. So all told, the deal—if it works out—could net UniQure more than $2 billion.

This isn’t the only pharma-backed gene therapy deal of late, of course. Gene therapy alliances have been sprouting up in several places over the past few years, a testament to the advances that have been made in delivering these treatments and the early human clinical data they’ve started to produce. But so far, most of those bets have been made in specific diseases—like hemophilia (Spark Therapeutics/Pfizer and Dimension Therapeutics/Bayer)—or in private companies, such as Sanofi/Genzyme’s deal with Voyager Therapeutics in neurological diseases. Bristol is making a substantial, broad bet on a public company, and could end up owning close to 20 percent of UniQure should the alliance progress. That would make Bristol one of UniQure’s largest backers—prior to UniQure’s February 2014 IPO, its two most significant investors were Coller International Partners (44.5 percent) and Forbion (35.6 percent).

Also noteworthy is Bristol’s choice of UniQure over San Diego’s Celladon (NASDAQ: CLDN), which is also developing a gene therapy for congestive heart failure. Celladon’s treatment is in a mid-stage trial expected to produce data imminently.

“Bristol-Myers Squibb has an excellent and long-standing track record of success in discovering and developing treatments for cardiovascular diseases and in embracing advancing technologies for the treatment of human diseases,” said Bristol’s head of discovery and R&D, Carl Decicco. “Collaborating with UniQure, a clear leader in the field with an innovative and validated gene therapy platform, further strengthens our capability to bring forward transformational new therapeutics for difficult-to-treat diseases, including cardiovascular diseases such as heart failure.”

The deal is expected to close in the second quarter. UniQure shares surged 44 percent in pre-market trading on Monday.

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Valore Acquires Boundless: The Netflix of Education Publishing?

Xconomy-Boston - Mon, 04/06/2015 - 08:00
Gregory T. Huang

A deal at the intersection of e-commerce and education technology is shining a light on some big trends in the publishing world. Those trends could help determine what higher-ed tools will look like years down the road.

Valore, a Boston tech company formerly known as SimpleTuition, has acquired online-education startup Boundless for an undisclosed sum. The combined company has 61 employees—11 have joined from Boundless—and is on pace to make about $100 million in revenues this year, says Valore CEO and co-founder Kevin Walker.

A brief history is in order: Walker, a veteran of the student-loan industry, co-founded SimpleTuition back in 2005. The startup built a site to help students comparison-shop for college loans and financial-aid packages. That business did well for a while but “got punched by the credit crisis,” Walker says, and then rebounded to profitability. Still, the company wanted to go bigger with its main strength: marketing products to students.

SimpleTuition broke into the textbook arena in 2012 via its acquisition of San Diego-based ValoreBooks, an online marketplace for buying, selling, and renting textbooks. That business grew fast, doing $80 million in gross sales last year. To reflect its new focus, the company changed its name to Valore this year, and that brings us to the new acquisition.

Kevin Walker

Walker saw that book “retailers are looking for new ways to source textbook content,” he says. And although digital materials are still only a small fraction of the college textbook market (less than 10 percent), most everyone thinks that’s where the industry is headed. “We want to drive that and not follow,” Walker says.

Which is where Boundless comes in. The company makes open, online content for college courses, targeted at both students and professors. Originally pegged as free alternatives to textbooks, the Boundless materials have evolved to become more modular, interactive, and customizable by instructors. But the startup is still early in the market.

The merging of the two companies makes sense because of their respective strengths, says Boundless co-founder and CEO Ariel Diaz. “Our culture is, the future is digital and we want to build amazing products. Their culture is, let’s take inefficiencies out of the textbook market. It’s the same goal but we’re coming at it from different sides,” he says.

Ariel Diaz

Boundless was founded in 2011 and quickly raised the ire of big textbook publishers. In 2013, the company settled a lawsuit filed by Pearson Education, Cengage Learning, and Macmillan Higher Education that alleged the startup’s free online materials infringed on copyrights. Boundless raised just under $10 million from investors including Venrock, NextView Ventures, Kepha Partners, and Founder Collective.

Meanwhile, Valore has raised about $27 million in funding from VCs including Atlas Venture, Flybridge Capital Partners, and North Hill Ventures. Walker says no new money was raised to finance the Boundless acquisition, but he declined to give any details about the terms of the deal. (As a side note, Walker and Diaz were originally introduced by their mutual investor Eric Hjerpe at Kepha Partners, who worked with SimpleTuition when he was with Atlas.)

What’s most interesting is that Valore’s relationships with bookstores, students, and colleges now puts it in position to make real inroads in digital publishing. “We can serve the student, we can serve Amazon, and every type of entity in the ecosystem in between,” Walker says.

One can’t help but think a big education publisher or retailer may … Next Page »

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Academia vs. BioPharma: Young Scientists Between A Rock and A Hard Place

Xconomy-Boston - Mon, 04/06/2015 - 03:00
Stewart Lyman

I’ve reached the stage of my career where I’ve been invited to give “career retrospective talks” to grad students and post-docs at academic institutions. It’s been an interesting and enjoyable experience meeting a new generation of young scientists and hearing what’s on their minds.

After delivering my seminar and sharing lots of stories and advice, the discussion quickly turns to jobs: what’s available out there, and how do you get one? Future employment is a big concern among this group. Only 15 percent of grad students and post-docs will ever land a traditional tenure-track academic position at a research university. With federal cutbacks in the funding of National Institutes of Health grants and the elimination of large numbers of R&D jobs in biotech/pharma, there appears to be a job squeeze at present in both academia and industry.

A recently published paper in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a number of academic heavyweights lays out a strong case for remaking our nation’s entire biomedical enterprise. “Rescuing U.S. biomedical research from its systemic flaws” reveals that the system, as it currently exists, in unsustainable. While we are constantly hearing about the need for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) researchers from the nation’s politicians, this requirement is not evenly distributed among every discipline. It appears that there is an overabundance of those trained in the biological sciences. I can see why some of the people I’ve met are feeling disheartened and nervous. Look at the titles of the some of the articles I found during a casual web search:

Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?
How to Exploit Postdocs
For Graduate Science Programs, It’s Time to Get Real
Yes, We Have a PhD Glut…
Say NO to the Second Post Doc!
Scenes from the Postdocalypse

Getting Good Career Advice May Be Difficult
One common theme that I hear from young people in academia is that good career advice is often unavailable from the very people who are providing their training, i.e., the professors who run the labs in which they work. Many of these investigators have no personal experience with biotech or pharma, so they can’t advise their students on how to proceed. Others aren’t interested in talking about alternatives to traditional academic investigator careers, and may even relegate those inquiring to “second tier” status within their labs just for asking. After all, who wouldn’t want to be an academic like them? This bias against alternative careers may not be that much different from how it used to be back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Luckily, some forward-looking institutions have put in place programs that provide a variety of resources for young’uns looking for career advice. For a great example, look at the website for the Office of Scientific Career Development at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Days of the Forever Job Are Gone
This is true for industries across a wide spectrum of the economy, not just biomedical sciences. The days of working for one company for your entire career disappeared with my parents’ generation. Now one can expect to have to change jobs often, and this may entail moving frequently to a different city, state, or country. In the days before biotech, many positions in Big Pharma were considered stable, forever jobs.

With global competition and a dearth of innovation at the top of the food chain, those days are long gone. Financial stresses have ratcheted up the expectations of how soon companies can come out with their next drug, and how much revenue it will generate. This has put tremendous pressure on large organizations to cut back on R&D. The “re” in research is disappearing. The model is changing from one based on “research and development” to one that focuses on “search and development.” Why discover drugs when you can buy them? Valeant Pharmaceuticals has become the poster organization for serial acquiring, slashing jobs at each company that it devours.

Basic Research Still Needs to Be Done
These days everyone is pushing translational research. They want to turn the output of the nation’s labs into new products that benefit everyone. There’s nothing wrong with looking for practical applications of scientific discoveries. However, if everyone is doing translational work, where will the future basic research discoveries come from? If one looks back at the Nobel prizes awarded in physiology or medicine, it is clear that the awards have mostly gone to basic research, with few having direct translatable value at the time that they were awarded.

I believe there should always be academic and even industrial jobs for people who want to do basic research. The balance between basic and applied research will be driven, in large part, by the funding available within the two hemispheres of academia and industry. Political and other economic forces factor into the equation as well. It is possible, career wise, to move back and forth between academia and industry, and the number of people taking this zigzag career path will likely increase in the future.

BioPharma: Do A Lousy Job, Or Even a Great One, And You May Get Fired
Imagine getting a shiny new job as a research scientist in the land of biopharma. What are your future prospects? If you bust your butt, but you and your coworkers are unable to come up with a new drug, you may all get fired. No surprises there. What happens, though, if you happen to do a great job and come up with a promising drug candidate? Paradoxically, you may still wind up getting canned. Why would that be? If you work at a biopharma startup, the next step in your company’s evolution will be to get the potential drug you came up with into the clinic. And this means hiring medical directors, clinical trial folks, regulatory experts, etc., or outsourcing this work to a contract research organization (which is actually a contract development company). If you’re working at a small company operating out of a tiny pool of money, the funds needed to pay for the development of a new drug sometimes can only come if they fire the people who created it. So to hire the new employees, the old ones must go.

If you work in R&D, don’t lose sight that D generally costs a whole lot more than R. Clinical trials are very expensive, whether your company runs them directly, or whether it farms out those studies. Finally, if another firm acquires your company, then all bets are off. This could be great for your career, or you may find yourself on the street in short order. It all depends on how much the acquiring company values R&D, and how they’ve penciled out the cost of the purchase. Sadly, R&D folks are often seen as expenses and not resources, as demonstrated by recent layoffs at Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi, and GlaxoSmithKline. Merck axed most of the R&D folks after buying Cubist, and Amgen, not wanting to miss a trend, is eliminating about 300 jobs after acquiring Onyx Pharmaceuticals.

What’s a young scientist to do? I offer some suggestions below. For another perspective, check out these thoughts as well.

Ten Bits of Career Advice for Young Scientists:

• Listen to your heart and take the advice of others (even me) with a grain of salt. Do what you want to do; this is your life and your career. You don’t want to find yourself hating … Next Page »

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Women in Engineering, and a Global Call for the Next MacGyver

Xconomy-Boston - Mon, 04/06/2015 - 01:40
Maja Matarić

Apparently, I’m pushy. I can’t help it. It’s my genes, and also all I’ve been through.

When you’re a woman in engineering, there are a host of voices (some residing in your head, some not), telling you that you’re not good enough, not smart enough—that when you’re alone amid a sea of male faces at conferences, there must be a reason for that.

I met my future husband in our first week of college. By our senior year, he was the only person who suggested I should aim high and apply for graduate school in engineering. I had a 4.0 GPA in computer science, yet no professor and no college counselor had ever suggested it.

In my first year in graduate school at MIT, I felt the full-fledged impostor syndrome—the belief I was there by mistake and that I would be found out any day. It turns out that nearly everybody at MIT has this feeling (though most don’t fess up to it), but women in particular do because we are not socialized to own our own successes. I happened to attend a workshop where I learned a great bit of advice: “Fake it ‘til you make it.” To men it comes naturally; women have to be reminded to do it.

I was the only woman professor in the first computer science department where I was hired. Then I was the second woman professor in the second computer science department where I was hired, and soon after I was the only one, when the first woman left. Things are much better now, I’m happy to say.

So, push. It’s kind of like Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in,” but a lot pushier.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, that I have achieved has come without quite a lot of pushing and effort on my part. When I do push, it turns out I can achieve almost anything. That’s not because I’m me, it’s because that’s what it takes, and we all can do that. I’m at USC, where “Fight on” is officially part of our college spirit. So that’s what I do.

That may sound trite, but consider this: Studies show that when men are told, “No,” what they hear and perceive is, “Not now.” Does that sound familiar from dating, maybe? It’s actually a great way to be. Women should be like that, too. “No” doesn’t always mean no; sometimes, it means not now, but try again in five minutes.

Push for things you believe in. Push for getting more women into computing. And as the curtain rises for National Robotics Week, I’m pushing to get more women into engineering and robotics.

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering, where I am vice dean of research, is no stranger to this particular push.

Thirty-seven percent of USC Viterbi’s entering freshmen are women; nearly double the national average. In addition, the female student percentage in computer science, a notoriously under-represented field for women, is close to 28 percent, also nearly double the national average.

But it’s not nearly enough. We’re currently in the midst of an ambitious push to change a culture on the national level—to explode some stereotypes about what engineers are, what they look like and what they do.

Conveniently, our school is close to Hollywood, the epicenter of popular culture. Rather than bemoan the fact that women engineers are virtually invisible on television and in the movies, we’ve decided to enlist Hollywood to change that.

Thirty years ago, MacGyver was the most iconic engineer hero on TV. In 2015, in the spirit of that show, we’re looking for new, female, engineering heroes. No mullets required.

The “Next MacGyver” global crowdsourcing competition, led by the USC Viterbi School and the National Academy of Engineering, has partnered with some of the most successful television producers in Hollywood to make it happen. We are looking for the first great show with an iconic female engineer as the main character, and five winners will each be awarded $5,000 and paired with a TV producer to develop her or his script. You can find more information here.

I have two daughters, ages 5 and 16, with a son in the middle. One of the things we do together is watch one of their favorite shows and then talk about it. My oldest daughter loves to watch “House.” She tells me she enjoys the way the strong females on the diagnostic team always challenge the lead character’s actions and ethics. We see a lot of strong female characters in medical, forensics, and law shows, but we’ve never really seen them as engineers.

Most kids don’t know about the fascinating opportunities for careers in engineering because they are missing in the media. Forensics has soared in popularity as a direct result of media coverage. Let’s do that for engineering! As pushes go, I can think of few better.

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