Why investors shift away from fighting top killer diseases

Sep 16, 2014, 6:48 AM | Updated: 6:49 am

Seattle venture capitalist Jamie Topper, at Frazier Health Care Partners, said there's also a shift toward funding work on "orphan diseases," which are rare and serious, an unmet need that is sometimes less strictly regulated. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Cancer and heart disease are still the top killers in the United States but recently, investors are pouring money into companies exploring different areas of disease and treatment.

Venture capitalists seek innovation, trying to find unmet health care needs and, of course, return. Analysis by Dow Jones and Company finds that venture investment in cardiovascular therapies, for example, about $710 million, was at a nearly 15-year low last year.

Seattle venture capitalist Jamie Topper, at Frazier Health Care Partners, said investors avoid programs that require a lot of money to develop new therapies or drugs. He calls it “capital intensity.”

“One of the things that is driving investment away from areas like cardiovascular or the brain is that they typically require large, later-stage, very expensive clinical trials in order to understand whether they have a new therapeutic and thus their capital intensity is very high,” said Topper.

The Dow Jones analysis finds rising investment in start-ups and other companies working in such areas as vision disease and hearing loss. Topper said there’s also a shift toward funding work on “orphan diseases,” which are rare and serious, an unmet need that is sometimes less strictly regulated.

“In order to get anything to the commercial market on the health care side, almost anything, you need to go through the strict regulatory review of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and related agencies, a very important process but it can be very difficult, very time-consuming,” he said.

You shouldn’t get the wrong idea. While venture capitalists have shifted priorities, seeking innovation and return on investment, traditional areas of research are getting plenty of attention.

“There’s still a tremendous amount of money going into everything from cardiovascular to Alzheimer’s research,” Topper said. “These are important, big unmet needs and they’re still being vigorously addressed.”

Venture capital in health care can be cyclical, said Topper. Several years ago, the conventional wisdom was that we had a good stable of antibiotics and didn’t need new research. Then, antibiotic resistant bacteria emerged and has, again, become an area of increasing investment, he said.

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Why investors shift away from fighting top killer diseases