It wasn’t just the fact that Larry Greller, Molecular Mining’s director of mathematical biology, came from SmithKline Beecham. Or that GlaxoSmithKline’s venture capital subsidiary, SR One, is one of the company’s leading investors.
These contacts helped, but it was a presentation at a conference of Molecular Mining’s informatics capabilities that sparked GlaxoSmithKline’s interest in the company, leading to a deal for an expression data analysis study related to the underlying mechanisms of bone function, said Evan Steeg, Molecular Mining’s founder and CEO.
“Our science leaders — Roland Somogyi, Larry Greller, and myself — we go out and give talks at conferences, and have published a couple of papers,” Steeg said. “In this case, scientists in R&D [at GlaxoSmithKline] saw what we do and it fit in to their needs.”
SR One sees the deal as fortuitous. “As always, our customer base is the pharma sector, and to have a pharma such as GSK as a customer for our product is exactly where we want to be,” said Barbara Dalton, a principal at SR One. “It’s a good way to start a working relationship.”
The deal also “means that we are doing our job,” Dalton said. “We invest in technologies that are of current or future interest to our parent,” GSK.
In the study, researchers from GSK and Molecular Mining will analyze gene expression in bone tissues that are subjected to bone-growth stimulating treatments. Molecular Mining will analyze the data from these studies, determining combinations of expression levels over specific genes and time points, and discerning interactions between genes, in order to model the regulatory networks associated with response to these treatments.
GSK is in late-stage clinical trials of an anti-osteoporosis bisphosphonate compound, Ibandronate, that it is jointly developing with Roche, and is in Phase I clinical trials of another osteoporosis compound, SB-462795, which it is developing with Human Genome Sciences — although the company did not confirm that either compound would be involved in this study.
Neither party disclosed the financial terms of the agreement, and GSK’s R&D team did not respond to a request for comment on this article. But Steeg did say that the collaboration is “not a huge deal financially.” Molecular Mining follows a fee-for-service model in cases where it just offers analysis (such as this one), and has been able “to negotiate some back end” — i.e., a percentage of royalties from any drugs developed in a collaboration that involves design of the experiment as well as analysis.
However, Steeg said the deal is “a first step for us,” and that “it speaks well to what we can provide.”
The company’s offerings include two gene expression data mining packages, GeneLinker Gold and Platinum, as well as more advanced predictive modeling programs that can be custom-designed. Steeg said one advantage of the company’s technology is its ability to break down gene networks into sub-networks, or networks of networks. While a model that maps all of the interrelationships of 5,000 genes would be “intractable,” he said, “If you use SLAM [sub-linear association mining] or other algorithms in the [GeneLinker] Platinum software, you can break down the dimensionality of the data.”
GSK is the third large pharma company that Molecular Mining has collaborated with so far, according to Steeg. The company also has some pilot projects with smaller and medium-sized biotech companies.
Meanwhile, the 40-person company is working on deals to improve distribution of its products. While Molecular Mining has a year of cash left, it is seeking additional financing in order to expand its sales staff, said Steeg, and is seeking additional OEM and co-marketing agreements.
Steeg admits that it is a tough time for bioinformatics companies seeking venture capital. “There are folks who didn’t look at us twice because they said ‘toolbox company bioinformatics’,” he said. “Just as the toolbox company market was irrationally hot two or three years ago, I think it is equally irrationally cold now.”
But for investors who are willing to give Molecular Mining a look, the company distinguishes itself from other bioinformatics firms with “a vigorous, strong science team and a strategy that includes getting into our own discovery, and discovery relationships,” said Steeg.
Admittedly, this hybrid model is still a hard sell, but the GSK deal may add some additional glimmer to the company in the eyes of potential funders.