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Successful start-up for Amakem

The fact that a company has to abandon a whole area of activity due to strategic reorientation does not necessarily mean that all the technologies it has developed are doomed to oblivion. A good example is provided by the creation of Amakem, which has taken over part of the assets of Flemish drug discovery company Devgen. In late 2007, the latter firm chose to divest itself of its pharmaceutical arm, which it considered too "risky" and cash hungry, and decided instead to concentrate exclusively on its agricultural biotechnology activities. With potential buyers scared away by the economic crisis, Devgen finally ceased its drug development activities in 2008 and laid off part of its staff. However, three former employees decided to carry the flame and continue developing Devgen's kinase inhibitor technology. With the blessing of their former company, which granted them an exclusive licence and the patent rights required for this activity, they created a new firm, Amakem, in which Devgen holds a 21% stake.

Kinase inhibitors

Amakem is focusing on the discovery and development of protein kinase inhibitors, a therapeutic strategy already investigated by many European companies in a wide range of diseases, particularly cancer. "The technology we have developed is based on locally acting active kinase inhibitors, which, once in the systemic circulation, are immediately degraded to biologically inactive metabolites", explained Dirk Leysen, former Devgen employee and Amakem founder, and scientific director of the new company. By allowing high doses to be delivered, the choice of local administration ensures greater efficacy against the target while avoiding the adverse effects associated with systemic administration. Amakem will begin by tackling chronic diseases such as glaucoma, allergic asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, in which treatment may be given locally (by the gastrointestinal route, skin patches, inhalation, eye drops, etc).

For the moment, the company's most advanced programmes concern inhibitors of Rho-kinase (ROCK), a family of kinases involved in the signalling pathways active in many diseases, including those targeted by Amakem. It is also seeking to extend the application of its technology to other kinases involved in inflammation.

Support by local investors

In contrast with many young companies with more modest ambitions, the directors of Amakem have already made their intentions plain: in time, they intend to make their company an "integrated pharmaceutical firm". For the moment, they have already successfully negotiated the first stage, namely financing the start-up. Dirk Leysen recognises that it is fairly rare for such an early-stage company to raise EUR 1.5 m. The initial fund-raising roundtable was conducted by Kofi NV, a subsidiary of LRM. This generalist investment fund from the Flemish province of Limbourg has already taken part in the financing of several Flemish companies, including TiGenix and Promethera in 2009. Its subsidiary Kmofin, specialising in "high-risk" investments, was created as part of the Flemish government's ARKimedes initiative (1). "Kmofin have supported us from day one", says Dirk Leysen. In his view, Amakem's status as the province's first company active in medicinal chemistry has made it especially attractive to local investors. As well as Kmofin, Life Science Research Partners VZW (LSRP), a non-profit technology transfer company based in Louvain, and Vlaams Innovatiefonds Comm. VA (VINNOV), a Flemish innovation fund dedicated to start-ups, were also involved in start-up financing. Like Devgen, each of the three investors hold 21% of Amakem's shares, and all four are represented on the board of the new company, presided over by Chris Buyse (LSRP).

(1) This initiative, launched in 2005, is designed to provide young high-growth companies with access to capital, with the Flemish government promising to provide up to one euro for every euro invested in a Flemish SME by a professional investment fund.