Advantage Advinus

19 Jun

This week, I visited the new drug discovery laboratories of Advinus Therapeutics in Hinjewadi, Pune. For those of you who don’t already know, Advinus is backed by the Tata group and operates from two sites.  The one in Bangalore houses drug development while in Pune it has about a hundred scientists engaged in the quest for new drugs. The drug discovery team does proprietary research and also research in alliance with Big Pharma such as Merck & Co., Johnson & Johnson etc. The company is about four years old.

Advinus announced its first new molecule that awaits DCGI permission for phase one trials in India. The new chemical entity is for type 2 diabetes. While they wouldn’t specify which class of drugs it belonged to,  Advinus top management say that Roche, Eli Lilly and Merck & Co., also have research compounds in the same class – which apparently has a novel mechanism of action. There are no marketed drugs yet, however.

From what the management tells us, the strongest USP of this product appears to be that itmay be  compatible with a number of diabetes drugs (diabetes management often requires the use of more than one drug). It also appears to be in a position to work on a large swathe of patients. Diabetes is a heterogeneous disease and genetics and environment have a role to play in the way it pans out in every individual. This makes coming up with a drug that works more often than it doesn’t quite challening.

However, it’s early days yet.  Given the probability of success in drug discovery, this one is up against great odds. Remember it’s yet to be tested for safety on humans, let alone for efficacy.

I also checked out their new discovery premises. From one floor a couple of years ago, the team has now moved to occupy an entire building at the Rajiv Gandhi Infotech Park. There is plenty of space for expansion within suggesting that it expects to add more work – and people – in the coming years.  While my understanding of what’s going on inside those test tubes is limited,  the staffers who showed us around seemed to know their stuff. Plus, they knew how to communicate. No doubt that also comes in handy when you are showing potential research partners around.

Stepping back a bit from these recent developments, I believe Advinus has many things going for it.

What strikes me most about its team is its focus, consistency, and an attitude that is firmly grounded in the harsh realities of the field, yet doesn’t get bogged down by it. As one senior scientist there told me, “you can work for twenty years and not ever work on a successful molecule.”

Yet, the “can do” attitude is palpable driven no doubt from the top. CEO and MD Rashmi Barbhaiya is a firm believer in the India advantage.  Barbhaiya and other senior leadership such as Kasim Mookhtiar, and Nimesh Vaccharajani who head discovery and development respectively have spent decades in the US at Bristol-Myers Squibb where they worked on drugs that are in or close to market. For instance, Vaccharajani played a role in the development of saxagliptin which is awaiting US FDA approval.

It also has a sound business model.  While Pune is focused n discovery, the Bangalore centre offers development services to a host of pharmaceutical and agrochemical companies from India and abroad for a fee. It has prepared dossiers for Indian and foreign companies that faciliate the filing of an investigational new drug application. As a result, they’ve had revenues coming in from day one. This year they hope to cross Rs 100 crore.  The discovery team also gets some upfront funding from its alliance partners for specific projects.

Focus also seems to be a forte.  India’s outsourcing story has caught the imagination of the drug industry and Big Pharma is keen on using Indian hands to do lab work at a fraction of the cost.  The Indian outsourcing partner sets up the labs, hires the people, and operates the facility and is paid for what are called full-time equivalents or FTEs. There is also apparently an understanding that such a facility might eventually be turned over to the Big Pharma company.

Advinus, from what I understand, has stayed away from this very competitive, relatively low-end business which no doubt consumes plenty of energy and resources but doesn’t much help its larger cause of bringing completely new drugs to market. It also has no interest in drug marketing.

Of course, it’s young and its biggest challenges still lie ahead.

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