Amira was founded in 2005 by a proven team of former Merck scientists, including Peppi Prasit, Jilly Evans and John Hutchinson. Responsible for the development of multiple billion-dollar Merck products, including the respiratory drug, Singulair®, this group of researchers was eager to discover and develop additional game-changing therapeutics. At the core of the Amira discovery and development engine was a distinctly forward-looking, commercial outlook. Decision-making at the earliest discovery and pre-clinical stages was focused on selecting targets and engineering compounds of major interest to strategic partners.
From its inception, Amira was endowed with an exceptional team of drug hunters focused on identifying novel, druggable targets and rapidly constructing effective lead compounds against these targets. The challenge was to forge a business model that could direct these resources to expedite the creation of novel and transformative therapeutics.
Brad Bolzon of Versant Ventures met Peppi Prasit in 2005. Venture financing of drug discovery companies was not in vogue at the time. However Versant recognized the opportunity to backed a world-class drug hunter and moved quickly to support Peppi in starting Amira. Versant partnered with the founders and assumed early hands on roles as Peppi moved to build his permanent executive team: Tom Woiwoide served as acting Chief Business Officer, Mark Moran as acting Chief Medical Officer and Brad as Chairman. Versant participated in Series A and Series B rounds of financing in which Amira raised a total of $28 million.
In 2008 Amira signed its first out-licensing agreement with GlaxoSmithKline to develop, manufacture and commercialize Amira’s FLAP (5-Lipoxygenase Activating Protein¬) inhibitors, including AM103. The agreement included up to $425 million of upfront and milestone payments, and provided Amira with non-dilutive capital to support continued development of AM103 and other Amira programs.
In 2009 Amira announced positive Phase 1 data for compounds in its selective DP2 antagonist program. DP2 antagonism has the potential to be a disease modifying approach to the treatment of asthma, chronic obstructive disorder and allergic rhinitis.
In 2011 Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) acquired Amira for $475 million including an upfront cash purchase price of $325 million and potential additional milestone payments of $150 million. BMS secured rights to Amira’s fibrosis program, including the lead asset AM152, an orally available lysophosphatidic acid 1 (LPA1) receptor antagonist which had recently completed Phase 1 clinical studies and was being readied for Phase 2a POC studies for the treatment of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and systemic sclerosis, or scleroderma.
The Amira exit may hold the potential to generate meaningful proceeds beyond the payments received from BMS. As part of its acquisition, Amira set up two independent companies that hold rights to the FLAP and DP2 assets, valuable programs which were not included in the BMS transaction. Additional milestone payments and returns are expected from these programs. GSK continues to advance the FLAP compound which is expected to enter a Phase 3 study in 2013. A key to Versant’s success has been its support and expansion of a cohort of highly accomplished “repeat” entrepreneurs. Following the close of the BMS deal, Peppi Prasit and Versant formed Inception Sciences, a drug discovery engine that could serve as a new industry model for funding, accelerating and monetizing drug development.