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Crowdfunding Early-Stage Drug Development

While it has advocates and critics, crowdfunding will add to biotech’s arsenal of funding options.


The Burrill Report

Crowdfunding has created a buzz, especially in the tech industry, as a way to fund early-stage startups. But can it work for early-stage life sciences companies looking to bridge a growing gap between tapping friends and family to getting the first round of venture capital? That was the question posed to panelists at the BIO Investor Forum in San Francisco October 8.

The upbeat mood of conference attendees were in an upbeat mood—thanks to the surge in biotech IPOs in 2013—belied the fact that for many early-stage biotechs, venture funding is still difficult to obtain. During the capital-constrained market of the past several years, many life sciences venture capitalists shifted their focus to late-stage investments in the hope of a shorter time to returns, or left the sector altogether.

Return expectations have changed across all sectors, says Deepa Pakianathan, general partner at Delphi Ventures. “Right now the majority of dollars will be invested in later-stage companies simply because people need returns in a shorter period of time.” It’s not that biotech is riskier than other industries, it’s that the turnaround time of drug development is so long.

At one end, there are some new funding models, such as the growing number of Big Pharma innovation centers or programs like the Thiel Foundation’s Breakout Labs, that can help move innovative ideas beyond academic labs. At the other end, the venture capital community is looking for ideas that are at least close to establishing proof-of-concept.

As a result, many early-stage drug developers have turned to angel investors, venture philanthropy, and disease-focused foundations as potential sources of capital to move their programs to a stage where it might attract venture investors or pharmaceutical partners. Now with the passage of the JOBS act, they can also tap the “crowd” of accredited investors who may only want to invest $10,000 to $20,000 into a company.

The answer to crossing what Greg Simon, CEO of crowdfunding platform Poliwogg, calls “the bridge of life” is to extend the number of investors who have access to the private marketplace. An enthusiastic proponent of crowdfunding, Simon says that angel investors make up the top-tier of accredited investors—the 3 percent of the 8 million people who could be investing in private companies.

“Rather than try to squeeze more money out of the 3 percent, why don’t we try to get some money out of the 97 percent,” says Simon. That’s what the JOBS Act makes possible with its provisions for increasing the number of investors a private company can have, and allowing general solicitation for funding. “The JOBS Act is making accessible to the average accredited investor what previously was only available to the ultra-wealthy,” Simon says.

He insists that qualified companies will be able to raise several million dollars through platforms such as his. While many life sciences executives don’t think the model is viable for the sector, and critics raise issues of due diligence, IP concerns, and answering to many shareholders, Simon has answers for their concerns. Poliwogg is not a bulletin board of companies that are seeking investments, but is registered as a broker dealer. It conducts due diligence on the companies that will eventually seek funding on its site, and prefers if they have already utilized another source of capital, say from a foundation or government grant. He dismisses venture investor concerns about too many investors in the room as something that he doesn’t bother worrying about and thinks it will spawn third parties that will handle communications between companies and investors.

Another concern about the crowdfunding model is whether or not every idea should get funded. Delphi Ventures’ Pakianathan thinks there are too many me-too ideas out there, too many people chasing too few ideas, creating a need for a culling process. While Poliwogg’s Simon agrees that not every idea deserves to be developed, he says there is a huge gap between fundable ideas and funded ideas, who makes the decision, and what are the criteria.

“The criterion has been how much money can I make within a five-year period with an internal rate of return that my shareholders are going to hold me to.” Says Simon. “That is a model—it is not the model. The new model is how many of these companies, if they succeed, will make an impact on a disease I care about. Somewhere between the ‘VC view of the world’ and ‘everybody is entitled to funding’ there is a magic number and it is nowhere near the number we fund today.”

October 11, 2013

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