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Small Pharma Co. Solving Big Problems

The Philadelphia Inquirer Mike Armstrong column [The Philadelphia Inquirer]

From Philadelphia Inquirer (PA) (August 29, 2012)

Aug. 29--Just because some businesses are labeled "small" doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to solve some big problems.

Consider Radnor-based Novira Therapeutics Inc., which is developing antiviral drugs to treat chronic hepatitis B and HIV infections.

Both are serious conditions. There were about 34.2 million people worldwide living with HIV infection in 2011, including about 1.2 million in the United States.

Hepatitis B infection, which is rare in the United States thanks to infant vaccinations, attacks the liver and is a major health problem in Asia, particularly China. The World Health Organization says 2 billion people have been infected with the hepatitis B virus, which is 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV.

Novira’s lead compound is an antiviral drug to treat hepatitis B infection. Its technology aims to disrupt capsid, a protein needed to replicate and transmit the virus, said Osvaldo Flores, its president.

With four employees, Novira may be small, but its two founders came from one of the world’s biggest drug companies, Merck & Co. Inc. Flores and George D. Hartman came from an organization that at one time could afford to do everything in-house -- from research to manufacturing.

Like other small life-sciences firms, Novira contracts out much of its work. But Flores said the company is "motivated to have the same rigor" as a Big Pharma company in a "small and more cost-effective environment."

Since 2009, Novira had funded operations with capital from BioAdvance, the life-sciences economic development group, and three angel groups, Robin Hood Ventures, Mid-Atlantic Angel Group and Delaware Crossing Investor Group.

Last week, Novira received its first round of venture capital. Canaan Partners and 5AM Ventures, both of California, led the financing which totaled $23 million. Flores said that the money would fund clinical development of its hepatitis B program through Phase 1b/2a studies.

Another local company is trying to tackle the ongoing challenge of detecting pathogens in the nation’s food supply. Invisible Sentinel Inc. said Tuesday that it had opened a manufacturing operation to make rapid diagnostic test kits.

The need should be apparent. Food producers are in a constant battle to prevent infection and must test to prove to the store chains and other vendors that their products are safe.

Even so, outbreaks of food-borne illnesses routinely make headlines, such as the salmonella outbreak tied to cantaloupe earlier this month.

Invisible Sentinel CEO Benjamin Pascal said the food industry spends more than $1 billion on such testing annually. Dozens of companies and laboratories provide test kits and services to food producers.

"Food safety testing is a white-hot industry for us," Pascal said.

Pascal and his partner, Nicholas Siciliano, started their company in 2006 and moved into the University City Science Center the following year.

Its new manufacturing line is capable of producing 2,500 test-kit units a week, Pascal said.

But before the company and its 12 employees do so, Invisible Sentinel must gain approval from the Association of Analytical Communities for its diagnostic devices to test for E. coli, listeria, campylobacter and salmonella. Approval of its first test could come during September, Pascal said.

Contact Mike Armstrong

at 215-854-2980 or, or @PhillyInc on Twitter. Read his blog, "PhillyInc," at


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Posted: August 2012