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Dr. Raúl Insa

founder and CEO of SOM Biotech

PhD in clinical neurology from the University of Alicante and MBA from ESADE Business School. He has also participated in executive programs at IESE and Harvard. For more than 20 years, he has held top executive positions at national and international pharmaceutical companies like Parke-Davis (now Pfizer), UCB Pharma, Grup Uriach and Isdin (Esteve Group). In 2009, he founded the biotechnology firm SOM Biotech and is currently fully devoted to growing the company.

Drug repositioning has become a viable solution because drugs reach the market in less time and pharmaceutical companies have committed to this option as an additional source of revenue. According to a study by Thomson Reuters, 200 drugs are currently repositioned each year, generating sales of $20,000 millions.

The Barcelona Science Park (PCB) is home to the headquarters of one of the few companies in the world specializing in discovering and developing new therapeutic applications for drugs already on the market, biotechnology firm SOM Biotech. Unlike some of its competitors, this company’s activity encompasses preclinical validation through proof-of-concept in humans, patenting and licensing to pharmaceutical companies in order to bring the drugs to patients.

SOM Biotech recently received the EmprenedorXXI award from “la Caixa” and the Ministry of Industry in the “Creixes” category. The panel of judges valued the company's significant results, ambitious growth plan and highly capable management team. They have just opened a third round of funding to attract €6 millions.

You specialize in drug repositioning. What advantages does this have over classical R&D for new drugs?

Time, cost and risk. Drugs are normally authorized based on criteria of efficacy, safety and quality. There is a lot of quality and safety information available on repositioned drugs, as they have already been on the market for some time. So if the new indication applies the same dosage, we just have to demonstrate efficacy. This means that the risk is much lower and the time and investment required are also reduced because fewer studies are needed. If normal drug development takes between 11 and 15 years, repositioning moves directly to phase II clinical trials and, therefore, shaves 5 or 6 years off the process.

How did you come up with the idea of a company based on repositioning?

I had worked in the laboratory at various national and international pharmaceutical companies for 22 years and I ran across computational technology that was theoretically able to identify new applications for drugs. This is why we decided to create SOM Biotech.

Are there other, similar companies in Catalonia or the world?

Yes, in 2010 Business Insight listed 15 companies around the world that are partially or fully devoted to drug repositioning. SOM Biotech was one of those on the list, as well as a couple other Catalan companies. The difference between these Catalan companies and ours is that they only offer the bioinformatics services but don’t take on the risk of developing the product through phase II, which requires quite a bit more time and investment. On a global level, companies in this field are found mostly in the United States, and some in Japan and Europe, with our same model: taking the drugs through the clinical phase and licensing the product to a pharmaceutical laboratory that can market it.

How do you compete with these companies?

You don’t really compete with a drug discovery tool. Once you have identified a new activity for a drug and can demonstrate that it works in vitro and in vivo, you can patent it, because the value really lies in the patent of use. That’s what sets you apart. It’s the same old story in the pharmaceutical sector: the first to arrive is the best positioned.

You’ve licensed one of your molecules (SOM0777) to Argon Pharma to treat multiple glioblastoma, the most common malignant tumor. When will this new oral drug be available?

The previsions are long term because this repositioning product hadn’t been on the market and there wasn’t a lot of information available, so quite a bit of preclinical research was required. Argon Pharma’s timing is to have the drug in the preclinical phase in a couple of years, to start the clinical phase in three years and for it to be on the market in five or six. They are currently conducting the experimental work and we are collaborating on scouting for a new partner for when a product has been obtained with enough experimental data to license.

What is the status of the other molecules in your portfolio?

We have a varied portfolio made up of five different molecules, three of which are for rare diseases. We don’t work on one therapeutic focus but on repositioning, so it doesn’t matter in which therapeutic area we discover new activity as long as there is a medical need. We are working on two molecules for rare diseases: SOM0226 to treat transthyretin-related amyloidosis, which will soon enter phase II in various hospitals in Catalonia and abroad, and SOM3355 for Huntington’s disease, a product on the market in Japan, which we are preparing for a clinical trial in Europe. We have a molecule to treat Alzheimer and amnesia and another to treat benign prostatic hypertrophy in the in vitro experimental validation phase.

How will you carry out all of these projects, which require millions in investment, now that public funding has been cut?

We’re devoting all available resources to the two priority projects about to enter phase II and have opened a €6-millions round of funding to cover our current and future portfolio of products, taking into account that we want to work on 25 reposition projects each year. How do we do it? Well, we try to adapt our human and financial resources as much as possible to advancing with these projects. Funding in Spain and in Catalonia is quite bad but there is money available. It’s a question of managing risk for investors. Therefore, I’m sure that in less than six months we’ll have attracted the investment needed to move forward with all of these projects.

We founded the company in late 2009, in the middle of the crisis, and this has been the situation ever since. In 2010 we did a small round with a group of Family & Friends. In 2012 we closed another round and have now opened this round, which is the most important of them all. In recent months we’ve presented the company at many investment forums, in Zurich, Vienna, etc. And thanks to the EmprenedorXXI award, we’re going to Israel to meet investors and clusters. A significant portion of my time, approximately 40%, goes to scouting for investment.

Does everything point to them being international investors?

Yes, I think at least 50%. It’s important for our sector and country to see that we can attract international funding. It gives greater guarantees to local investors. We haven’t discarded the option of selling off some of our products in advanced stages of licensing later in order to generate funding from inside the company.

Since the beginning, you’ve been located in the Barcelona Science Park bioincubator. What benefits have come from this environment?

It has been, and is, a very positive experience. Initially they gave us a lot of help from an economic standpoint and, later, being in the Park has meant having access to joint scientific and technological platforms and not having to purchase equipment. Working alongside various companies also facilitates contacts. Argon Pharma, for example. Next year, when our time at the bioincubator ends, we’ll assess the pros and cons, as the regular fees are higher, but we would like to stay.

SOM Biotech won one of the EmprenedorXXI awards for its potential for growth. What are your milestones for the next three years?

We would like to license at least one of the two molecules going into phase II (amyloidosis and Huntington’s) as that would help us bolster our portfolio with new products and, at the same time, for the company to continue growing, with a global viewpoint but based in Catalonia. If everything goes according to plan, three years from now we will have a team of twenty people, while now we are five.

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