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Former Pfizer Scientists Put Down Biotech Roots

Former Pfizer scientists put down biotech roots [The Day, New London, Conn.]

From Day, The (New London, CT) (January 9, 2011)

Jan. 09--Two former Pfizer Inc. scientists are trying to accomplish nearly by themselves what $9 billion in research spending by their former employer couldn’t buy last year -- the development of a new drug that wins regulatory approval.

And they’re working on their separate projects, inspired by previous research they did at the company, at a newly renovated building on Howard Street, practically a stone’s throw away from Pfizer’s former world research headquarters off Pequot Avenue.

The irony isn’t lost on Jim O’Malley, principal and owner of Myometrics LLC, a biotech company that has set up its laboratory in a building formerly owned by perennial city protester Bill VonWinkle.

"It took fully a year to fit it out," said O’Malley, who did much of the work on the building himself, starting in August 2009. "We’ve come a long way."

O’Malley’s firm, currently working on a drug to promote bone growth after tooth extraction, has a five-year lease on the building but is sharing space with an early-stage cancer-research company called Sarataun, run by former Pfizer scientist Farzan Rastinejad. Both men were laid off from the New York-based pharmaceutical company that is in the process of vacating its office complex in New London but still has a major research site in Groton.

They currently work in the same building where VonWinkle, a key figure in the eminent-domain controversy at Fort Trumbull that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, once lodged a protest against Pfizer’s role in the taking of homeowners’ property by famously painting the structure a lurid pink and threatening to operate a strip club there just as the company’s R&D headquarters opened.

O’Malley said the building was in a dire state by the time he got hold of it, but its condition proved no hindrance to his plans. He leases the building from the New London Development Corp. for $1 a year after spending $60,000 of his own money on renovations.

O’Malley said the state has several biotech incubators, including one at Avery Point in Groton, but they were too far away or didn’t suit his needs. "Avery Point is more appropriate for marine science," he said. "They don’t have the facility and licensing to do rodent research."

The local development group Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region has hopes of launching an incubator that would attract other former Pfizer scientists to start new companies. "The potential for companies that have the sweat equity of Myometrics is a shining example of what we have to do as we proceed to recover from an economic downturn," said SeCTer’s executive director, John Markowicz.

Annie Chambers, director of loan programs at SeCTer, said a few potential new biotech companies are in the startup stage. But most, she said, require working capital -- money that is hard to come by in today’s banking world.

Money is still a problem for Myometrics, but it has managed to land several federal grants, including $200,000 from the Department of Defense. But state money has been in short supply, O’Malley said. "It’s notable by its absence," he said.

O’Malley has kept costs down by building his own lab, which includes microscopes, centrifuges and a high-tech plate reader for cell-biology studies, virtually all of it bought second hand. Myometrics currently has a strategic alliance with a medicinal chemistry firm in Ann Arbor, Mich., unaware of any local company that can do the work.

O’Malley works with a part-time partner, Tom Owen, a former Pfizer employee who lives in New Jersey. They are trying to avoid venture capital, fearing that outside investors might effectively shut them out of decisions and won’t share their long-term goal of sustaining work in southeastern Connecticut.

"If this economy is going to start recovering, people who are being laid off need to start working again," he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is one of an occasional series about local business innovators.

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Posted: January 2011