First in Line for Second Chances
Randall Woods is all about doing things over and over. For one thing, he's a serial entrepreneur. Since leaving Big Pharma
in 1996 (after 23 years in the industry, concluding with a stint as president of US operations for Boehringer-Mannheim), he
has headed three young San Diego–based firms. The first was Corvas International, an ambitious company pursuing anticoagulants
and cancer therapies, which was sold to Dendreon in 2003. Next came NovaCardia, which was sold to Merck in a $364 million
stock deal last fall on the strength of KW-3902 (rolofylline), an experimental treatment for congestive heart failure. As
part of that deal, Woods got to spin off a new company—appropriately named Sequel—to develop another of NovaCardia's drug
candidates. Sequel is a stripped-down operation, with just nine employees, most of them old NovaCardia hands.
But serial entrepreneurialism is just one way Woods' taste for repetition manifests itself. He's also a fan of second-chance
drug development. Rolofylline, for instance, was licensed from the Japanese drug company Kyowa Hakko, which had developed
the drug as a chemotherapy adjunct, then abandoned it. But NovaCardia's founder and chairman, Eckard Weber (who is also on
Sequel's board, and a partner at the venture capital firm Domain Associates), saw a better way to put the molecule to work.
"Eckard has an uncanny ability to find drugs that have been abandoned," says Woods. "He's such a brilliant clinical pharmacologist
that he can see utility in therapeutic areas that other people can't."
Sequel's current lead candidate, K201 (JTV-519), a drug for atrial fibrillation, came to them in a similar fashion "We actually
found that drug ourselves," says Woods. "But we sort of mimicked what Eckard did as best we could."
To Woods, the appeal of this way of doing business is its efficiency. "What would have been tens of millions of dollars down
the drain, on a drug that would just sit on a shelf somewhere and never see the light of day, now we can leverage. We get
the benefit of all the money that's been spent; it's far less risky for us," he says. "The problem with companies with larger
infrastructures is that if you get a trial that's delayed, you're still paying the rent, and you're still paying 100 PhDs,
so you're burning through a lot of money. We don't have that."
Woods is less sold than Duane Roth on the idea that selling out early is the best way to go. He has plenty of experience in
cardiovascular commercialization, and if the numbers work out, he's not averse to going that way again. "When we create these
companies," he says, "We create them with the goal in that we will raise more money, continue the development of these drugs,
and perhaps go public. We could create a small specialty sales force and take this thing all the way to the marketplace ourselves."
At the moment, that decision is still a long way off. Sequel has enough money to take it through the middle of next year,
Woods says. Efficacy data on K201 should be available this fall. "Pharmaceutical companies are already lining up," says Woods.
"They saw what we did with Merck. Now they're saying, 'OK, they'll probably do this again.'"