Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Entra: The Stealthy New Start-Up from Yet-Ming Chiang and Michael Cima

I kept hearing that A123 Systems founder Yet-Ming Chiang was up to something new, so I've spent a few days putting together the pieces.

Turns out he has launched a new company, Entra Pharmaceuticals, to commercialize some drug delivery technology that he and fellow MIT prof Michael Cima cooked up a couple years ago. But they're not just creating an inexpensive, disposable new device that Cima refers to as a "patch pump" -- they're also working on a new drug, too. "The strategy is to make a product with the drug on board," Cima says. "Instead of a $5000 pump, this is a transformational technology that's less expensive, smaller, and less complex."

Unlike a passive nicotine patch, Chiang says their device does involve electronics. "A good way to describe it is 'smart' and 'active,'" he said during our game of Twenty Questions this afternoon. Neither founder wants to be specific about the disease they're addressing, though Cima says it won't be diabetes.

Both Chiang and Cima are board members and consultants to Entra, visiting the company one day a week for a technology update. They've hired Frank Bobe as chief executive, who was formerly chief business officer at Alseres Pharmaceuticals. (Alseres is a 17-year old company that has yet to get a drug approved, and was [updated] just de-listed from Nasdaq.) Heading up business development is Shobana Albrecht, previously at BG Medicine and Baxter. Rick Gyory is VP of product design and development; he earlier worked at Transform Pharmaceuticals and ALZA Corp.

Interestingly, Entra is now located at the BU Photonics Center near Kenmore Square -- the very same building where A123, Chiang's last company, was hatched. (Battery-maker A123 raised $69 million earlier this year, as it remains in a holding pattern waiting to go public.)

Here's the key patent MIT has licensed to Entra, which seems like a hybrid of a transdermal skin patch and a wearable infusion pump.

"Many new drugs have short half-lives," Cima explains. "They're metabolized quickly. So to get the right exposure, you have to hook yourself up to an IV for continuous administration, or if you do a bolus dose, you have to go really high, and a lot of the time the side effects you get are associated with that high concentration. With a device you can wear, you can achieve a long half life" without having to do either of those things, and without having to redesign the molecular structure of the drug itself. "That's the value that we bring, at a high level," Cima says.

This is the first life sciences start-up for Chiang. He told me that the science behind Entra was initially funded by a DARPA grant, and then by MIT's Deshpande Center. "The idea behind Deshpande is to help new technologies get through the 'valley of death,'" Chiang said, when they're not raw research any more, but they're also not yet a commercializable product. "That really worked in this case."

Up to now, the only real known info on Entra was a PEHub report last December noting that Flybridge Capital Partners and North Bridge Venture Partners had put $4.2 million into the company in an A round -- and will increase that amount to $12.5 million if the company hits certain milestones this year. The board member representing Flybridge is Michael Greeley; Jeffrey McCarthy represents North Bridge. This is the fourth Cima-related start-up that Greeley has been involved with.

(Another recent collaboration between Cima and Greeley is Certus Biomedical, which will soon change its name because of some trademark conflicts. Very little is known about that company, either, although its backers are Flybridge, Ed Kania at Flagship Ventures, and Kevin Bitterman at Polaris Venture Partners.)

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