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Arizona Life Sci-Funding Organization Catapult Bio Debuts with $14M Grant from Abraxis

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Catapult Bio, a non-profit organization formed to provide gap funding and services to develop and commercialize life science discoveries made in Arizona, launched last week with a grant of up to $14 million from Abraxis Bioscience.

The organization, which will be based in Phoenix, will initially provide funding and other resources to life science discoveries with commercial potential emanating from Arizona's university and research institutions, according to a Catapult official. However, it will eventually expand to include promising discoveries from a wider variety of sources within the state.

Catapult Chairman MaryAnn Guerra told BTW this week that the organization wants to create companies "that will be a little more robust and have a better chance to succeed. It's just that a lot of those ideas right now are stuck in academic institutions. If somebody came off the street and had a great idea that falls into our areas of interest in life sciences, certainly we would consider funding that."

As part of its funding program, Catapult will solicit applications from life sciences researchers and entrepreneurs in the state, most likely beginning in the early spring, Guerra said.

Catapult will solicit funding applications from all areas of biomedicine, including therapeutics, diagnostics, prognostics, services, and medical devices, Guerra said.

Independent boards of experts in each of these areas will review the applications and make recommendations to Catapult's board of directors. The two boards, which are still being assembled, will comprise individuals from various academic institutions, scientific organizations, venture capital firms, and life science companies based in the state, Guerra said.

Award sizes will likely range from $50,000 to $300,000, depending on the nature of the project, and probably have a maximum duration of three years, Guerra said.

"The idea is to take late-stage discoveries and add value to them, and once you have validation and a prototype, et cetera, we can make a better decision as to whether a new company should be started around it," Guerra said.

The idea for Catapult largely evolved from discussions Guerra had with other members of the life sciences community involved with TGen Accelerators, a non-profit spinout of the Translational Genomics Institute based in Phoenix and created to help commercialize promising discoveries from TGen.

Guerra is president of TGen Accelerators, while TGen's vice president of strategic and business partnerships Ron King will serve as president of Catapult.

"We know the area well and know there is a big gap," Guerra said. "We see it every day in our current jobs, where great science that has commercial potential just stops because we don't have the money to develop it further."

Despite Guerra and King's connection to TGen, Catapult will operate as an independent non-profit and will show no preference toward funding biomedical innovations originating at the institute, Guerra said.

"There are no ties back to TGen other than that we've signed a strategic relationship with them, where we hope that they will look to Catapult first" to help commercialize discoveries, Guerra said.

Guerra added that Catapult also feeds into a larger effort in the state to create an innovation hub and spur economic development in the life sciences. This effort is guided by the Arizona Bioscience Roadmap, commissioned in 2002 by the Flinn Foundation and authored by national R&D firm Battelle Technology Partnership Practice.

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Initiatives under the roadmap have included state investments of $440 million in mostly life-science research facilities; the 2006 establishment of public-private research grant-making organization Science Foundation Arizona; and the recent formation of Translational Accelerator, a $20 million private bioscience venture group backed by various Phoenix-area life-science companies and investors.

As such, Catapult falls more under the category of "economic development," Guerra said. "If you look at what people in other places are doing, they're trying to create these hubs. This is a gap that has been identified in Arizona."

'Venture Philanthropy'

Catapult is being funded initially with a grant of up to $14 million over five years from Abraxis Bioscience. It is unclear whether or how Abraxis will benefit. The Los Angeles-based company, which also owns a manufacturing facility in Phoenix, develops biotech drugs for a variety of diseases, but primarily cancer. Officials for the firm were not available for comment in time for this publication.

In a statement, Abraxis CEO Patrick Soon-Shiong called Catapult a "new model for venture philanthropy," and said that he expects the organization to help develop technologies emanating from academic research centers.

"It is our hope that these more fully developed technologies will enhance new company formation, accelerate the delivery of novel products to the public, and drive economic development" in Arizona, Soon-Shiong said.

Besides its manufacturing plant in the state, which it acquired from Watson Pharmaceuticals in 2007, Abraxis last year said it would invest $7.5 million to help establish a National Personalized Health Network based in Phoenix to increase evidence-based personalized medicine clinical trials conducted in Arizona (see BTW, 2/13/2008).

Meanwhile, this week the company announced that it would spin out Abraxis Health as a standalone evidence-based personalized healthcare company. Abraxis did not disclose where the spinout would be based.

According to Guerra, Abraxis' intentions in Arizona are purely philanthropic.

"I've known [Soon-Shiong] for a few years, and he just said to me, 'You guys are doing what needs to be done in this whole personalized medicine space. You've got multiple institutions in the community involved, and public-private partnerships in place,'" Guera said.

"I think he saw this as an evolution in the space, and that he's doing it because he thinks it's the right thing to do, and would like to see if this model will work," she added.

Guerra stressed Abraxis will not have any say in which projects Catapult will fund, save for the fact that Soon-Shiong will sit on Catapult's board, which will make the final decision on whether to fund projects recommended by the independent selection committees.

"The agreement does not have any provisions for Abraxis to receive right of first refusal," she said.

Abraxis will likely only fund Catapult for five years, after which the fund is expected to turn evergreen by leveraging any early commercialization successes.

"We'd like to support this idea of venture philanthropy, and then take that and move it into more of a commercial business approach," Guerra said. At that point, she said, Catapult might take equity in a company supported through the program, and any proceeds from that equity position would then flow back into a fund to support additional projects.

Catapult may also seek additional funding for the grant program from other life science companies, organizations, and investors. "We've talked with some drug companies, and Patrick has said he would try and rally some of his colleagues," Guerra said.

Catapult is currently working on obtaining office and laboratory space to help support early-stage research and companies; finalizing guidelines for the program; and putting together its review committees. If all goes according to plan, Guerra said, the organization will have space in March and begin collecting applications soon thereafter.

"We'll have some kind of application process for fairness," she said. "But we also really want to keep it nimble, and not have a nine- or 12-month review process."

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