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Putting Wishes into Effect

University spin-off looks for work for its polymers featuring living controlled polymerization

December 13, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 50

O'Brien (left) and Haddleton are working to apply their Poly PEG technology to health care products.
O'Brien (left) and Haddleton are working to apply their Poly PEG technology to health care products.

A technology dating back to the 1950s is finally starting to edge its way into the marketplace. And one of the companies working to commercialize the technology--called living controlled polymerization--is seeking new applications for it.

Earlier this fall, the company broadened the technology's possibilities by developing an improved method for PEGylation, a molecular-weight building technique increasingly being used in the development of protein-based therapeutics.

And last month, WEP successfully demonstrated a scale-up of its technology; the company has enlisted a partner, polymers specialist Scott Bader Ltd., to handle larger quantities of a product requested by customers. WEP is producing multikilogram batches of a specific polymer for potential use in hair products for Unilever.

That accomplishment, as well as the commercial sales the company has already notched up, underpinned the Best University Spin-Out Company Award that the company received last month from a consortium of business-support agencies in the U.K. That's the kind of news that a company's venture-capital investors love to hear, and it will help WEP wrap up its latest round of funding.

"We anticipate the money we raise this time will take us through to profitability," O'Brien says. "We will have a couple of years to grow the portfolio and get into the biotech area with conjugates"--molecules that link polyethylene glycol (PEG) with lysine, terminal amino, and cysteine residues, among others. New development, he adds, can be funded from profits; other funding will come from customers seeking development of particular facets of WEP's technology.

Some of the company's market areas are in specialty chemicals--polymers for laundry products, hair gels, and anti-dye-transfer agents, for example. But clearly, the pharmaceutical and health care markets hold the greatest potential and appeal for WEP.

HOWEVER, the pharmaceutical field poses a peculiar challenge, Haddleton says. He recalls that at a recent U.K. conference on polymer therapeutics, it was apparent that "polymers that have been used in the pharmaceutical industry have employed less sophisticated technology than those used in shampoos--they contain polymers that shampoos were using 30 years ago." That's why he and O'Brien believe that the area is a natural one for them to address.

As Haddleton notes: "We are very good at making polymers using our own technology and also using more traditional polymer chemistry. Pharma companies' core skills are not in making polymers--we can help them."

O'Brien adds: "We can blend different polymerization technologies together. The technology we have is so versatile--we can use pretty much any methacrylate or acrylic, for example. There are more than 500 basic acrylics commercially available. We can get closer to what nature does, in terms of being able to control polymer structure, than classical free-radical polymerization can."

The company's roots go back to work that Haddleton, a professor of chemistry at the University of Warwick, began "messing around with" in 1996. His team ran into problems, however, when potential customers needed evaluation samples of polymers. Fortunately, at about that time, the university created a technology transfer arm, Warwick Ventures. "We were one of the first knocking on their door," seeking a grant to employ someone to produce polymers for customers to evaluate, Haddleton says. That first year, he adds, his team made a profit as a trading activity of the university, and that spurred him to set up a company.

"I could have left the university to run the company," Haddleton says, "but that's why we appointed [O'Brien]. I'm good at starting things, but the way the company is evolving, I'm not skilled at taking a company forward. I love being an academic."

O'Brien, on the other hand, has had positions spanning R&D, operations, sales, and marketing in a variety of fine chemicals and biotech companies, most recently Dowpharma. WEP, O'Brien says, "had just started up, and it has some interesting technology. There's really fast growth in the use of advanced polymers--this is a great chance to grow a company and take it forward."

Forward, he observes, is entering the pharma field. Indeed, that's one reason for the appointment in October of Thomas Neenan as vice president of business development in the U.S.; Neenan had been in a similar position at Genzyme.

Among the company's latest projects is filing patents on polymers that target health care and personal care. For example, the company has filed for patents on its Poly PEG technology, which attacks protein modification by combining a traditional PEG with a methacrylic backbone.

PEGylation is used by the pharmaceutical industry because the resulting large molecular size helps the body retain a therapeutic ingredient long enough to do its job. The kidney is extremely efficient at excreting substances below a molecular weight of about 12,000. Accordingly, there is a move in industry, Haddleton notes, to increase the molecular weight of a drug active ingredient to 20,000 or more.

The Poly PEG technology, he says, "is very good for building up molecular weight." With the Poly PEG "comb" structure--a methacrylic polymer backbone and teeth of PEG--"we just do 20 teeth. Each tooth has a molecular weight of about 1,000," he points out, to attain the desired molecular weight.

According to O'Brien, one of the major challenges facing WEP as a small company is "getting people to listen. We need to get out there, to let people know that we have a viable product."

At the same time, he adds, "we need to steer carefully--this technology has such wide applications for such a wide variety of markets that we are in danger of becoming unfocused. Our strategy is to narrow the focus just a bit, going into the pharma field." The technology, he says, "is now scaled and economically viable. We aren't selling hair spray; we are selling polymer technology. That's what we've got to get over to people--that we can develop polymers for whatever their needs are."


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