After Layoffs from Pfizer, Scientists Move Forward with Research
Barely two years after getting laid off with hundreds of other researchers at Pfizer's drug research campus in Chesterfield, Joseph Monahan is poised to embark on the most significant research of his career.
Credit for the turnabout goes to the advances made in the development of cutting edge therapeutics at a post-Pfizer startup co-founded by Monahan — research that has now gained $4 million in venture capital funding.
In a short time, the Confluence Life Sciences has helped validate the belief, met with skepticism in some quarters, that St. Louis can compete with Boston, San Francisco and the North Carolina Research Triangle and other regions dominating global bioscience research and production.
“This is a huge statement about the talent we have in this town," said Jay DeLong, vice president of New Ventures and Capital Formation for the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association. "This is a company that started from scratch and in a very short time matured to the point where it has attracted outside capital. It's a huge statement for the Biogenerator and the programs they are setting up.”
A formal announcement of the funding, the bulk provided by Houston-based DFJ Mercury, will be made Monday. g Monday.
Biogenerator, the Missouri Technology Corp. and the Helix Fund — local and state private/public partnerships promoting bioscience and technology research and development — are co-financiers.
Confluence will devote a fair share of the money into furthering the enzyme research that company scientists hope one day will slow the pace of fast-acting pancreatic cancer cells.
The company envisions the research evolving into production of pharmaceuticals designed to improve the five-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer patients. The current survival rate falls between 4-6 percent.
A $4 million investment represents a major benchmark in a circle where startups tend to disappear once they've burned through seed money drawn from personal accounts, family and friends.
“We are very excited by the Confluence team and technology platform and the rapid progress the company has already made,” DJF Mercury investment team associate Daniel Janiak said in a prepared statement.
Walter Smith served as the Pfizer executive overseeing international research into immunology and inflammatory disease until he was laid off.
Now the chief executive at Confluence, Smith credits aggressive state and local efforts to promote entrepreneurship, particularly in science and technology, for allowing St. Louis to retain many highly-trained ex-Pfizer employees who might otherwise have taken transfers to Pfizer sites near Boston and San Francisco.
“By no means can we claim to be Boston-esque, but we're moving in the right direction,” he said.
The company garnered initial support from BioSTL and the Center for Emerging Technologies in addition to the Missouri Technology Corp.
BioGenerator provided the laboratory and office space. BioGenerator is a nonprofit science and technology incubator that receives financing from the Monsanto Fund, the now defunct Danforth Foundation, Bunge North America and the McDonnell Foundation and Cortex,
Moving from a mega-corporation to fledgling enterprise required the displaced Pfizer researchers to make some adjustments.
“If there's a legal question at a large (pharmaceutical company), there is a legal department with five lawyers a couple floors up. And if you need to purchase something you just call procurement,” said Smith.
“Here, you have to do it on your own,” noted Monahan. The former executive director of the Pfizer Inflammation Unit, Monahan serves as the the startup's president and chief scientific officer.
Setting aside Monahan's and Smith's separation from a corporation where they'd spent nearly three decades, the layoff occurred at a fairly opportune time.
The quest to remain profitable has prompted many large pharmaceuticals to outsource research and development.
Downsized top-drawer scientists like Monahan and Smith meanwhile can step into the breach with nimble startups that can complete research and therefore product development more expeditiously than a cumbersome corporation.
The talent pool cast aside by Pfizer made it that much easier for Confluence.
“It allowed us to stay in St. Louis with a core group of (highly competent) people,” said Monahan.
DeLong said the continued presence of Monahan and company sends a message that St. Louis is serious about establishing a beachhead in the global bio-science marketplace.
“Two years prior these guys would taken a job somewhere else in the U.S.," he pointed out.
In that regard, Marcia Mellitz, the vice president of program development at nonprofit BioSTL, sees Confluence blazing a trail for dozens of bioscience and technology startups populating small business incubators in and around St. Louis.
She joins other local economic development officials in the belief that the public/private small business incubators combined with the access to research at Washington University, St. Louis University, Monsanto, the Danforth Plant Science Center and other venues will ultimately provide St. Louis with an edge over other science and technology corridors.
Mellitz says DJF Mercury's faith in Confluence is proof the region is heading in the right direction.
“As these companies get a foothold you'll see more of these type investments,” she predicted.