All the small startups: running dry?

By Derek Lowe

You've probably never heard of La Jolla Pharmaceuticals. To be honest, even though I work in the industry, neither had I. But this small company had a drug in Phase III for lupus, a disease for which there are no good treatments. And today they were notified by their review board that the whole study had to be scrapped, immediately: there was no chance that the drug could possibly be showing a useful endpoint, and continuing it would be unethical. La Jolla's stock went down about 90 per cent, and I would imagine that the future of the company is very much in doubt (especially given the current climate for financing).

There are all sorts of small drug companies like this, pursuing long-shot ideas and hoping for the best. Once in a while, one of them comes through, and we're all better off for it. But we're all better off for the willingness of investors to back such ideas in general, and that's one of the things that worries me about the current economic troubles. The United States has one of its greatest advantages in its constant bubbling ferment of start-up companies - and not just in the drug industry, of course. But many of these outfits have been caught short by the downturn, since they run close to the edge of their finances even under good conditions.

How many ideas that might have taken off are we going to miss, and how many therapies that could have worked out, if the money had held out a bit longer? The Citis and Caterpillers of the world are getting the headlines with their massive layoffs, understandably. But there are a lot of outfits that you've never heard of that are in the process of losing everything. Money wouldn't have saved La Jolla Pharmaceutical's drug for lupus - the science just wasn't there, in the end. But lack of money could keep the next drug from even being found.


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/02/all-the-small-startups-running-dry/580/