Born in 2001 as a research spinoff of Crinos Industria Farmacobiologica SpA now Sirton SpA a small Italian pharmaceutical company, Gentium, based in Como, north of Milan, is engaged in the research, discovery and development of drugs to treat and prevent a variety of vascular diseases and conditions related to cancer and cancer treatments.
The company is the brainchild of Laura Ferro, medical psychiatrist by training and now one of the most promising Italian biotech entrepreneurs and innovators. Today Gentium holds 38 U.S. and EU patents with 109 applications pending and entered Nasdaq in June 2006 after an IPO in 2005 at Amex. Gentium aims to become a pharmaceutical company direclty marketing its products in Italy and Europe and granting licences for the US market.
You are one of the few public Italian biotech companies, and the only one traded on the American stock exchange. Why did you choose this market?
It was a forced choice because we had to raise capital to finance our clinical trials and the Italian stock exchange was simply not interested in us. We are a research company and our first products won’t be on the market before 2008, while Italian investors seem to prefer companies paying dividends.
In Italy biotech is still perceived as a very risky investment while U.S. investors seem more comfortable with this sector and have a medium term perspective. In the last two years we had three financial operations. After the IPO in 2005, a first pipe (private investment in public equity) in October 2005 and a second one in May 2006 in whichwe raised $21.1 million to further strengthen our balance sheet to support continued development of the pipeline. At every financing round we had different investors, mostly healthcare funds that I personally recruited through multiple roadshows and no venture capital. Today the main investors are FinSirton, my family’s holding (30%), Sigma Tau, a large Italian pharmaceutical company and several funds as JPMorgan and Great Point Partners.
What are the strengths of doing research in Italy?
We speak of “Brain in Italy” to describe ourselves because out of 69 people, 67 are in Italy and only two in the U. S.. At our headquarters in Como we have a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility currently used for active pharmaceutical ingredients and Defibrotide which underwent a $10 million upgrade in 2004 and is FDA GMP compliant. I believe Italy can be very competitive in science. Our costs are much lower than in other countries such as Ireland, even without fiscal incentives.
The country has very good basic research and excellent clinicians, e.g. in Bergamo and Pavia. We can count on a vast network of collaborations with research centres. However, research is truly a global enterprise and our network extends beyond national borders.
Our development program for VOD, includes several ongoing clinical studies in the U.S., Europe and Israel, including a U.S. Phase III trial started in July 2006. Among the centres involved in these trials are the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, MD Anderson, Memorial Sloan-Kettering,Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre and The Johns Hopkins Hospital & Health System.
What do you think would help the development of the biotech sector in Italy?
In the upcoming years the challenge for Italy will be the development of new measures to accelerate creation of companies. This implies working on two fronts. First, a change in the legal framework with measures as fiscal incentives to stimulate investments in research. France is proving a positive experience with its measures for young and innovative enterprises. Secondly, the growth of new financial operators and investors capable of understanding the biotech sector and making the market grow.
Laura Iris Ferro partecipa al Forum della Ricerca e dell’Innovazione.