Angels Aim to Bridge Financing Gap, Boost Biopharma Start Up Activity in Italy

Italy’s most successful biotech entrepreneurs are combining their skills and experience in a newly formed angel investor network, Italian Angels for Biotech (ITAB), which aims to support the emergence of a new generation of start-ups in Italy.

The group plans to provide seed financing – in the range of €100,000 (US$109,119) and upward – as well as mentoring and networking opportunities to early stage ventures. “Over the years, we’ve all come across very interesting research and innovation, but most of the time there is a large gap between the idea and the ability of the people involved to transform that idea into a business,” ITAB Chairman Luca Benatti told BioWorld Today. Bridging that gap is the overarching objective of the new initiative.

The high-powered group has good access to international venture capital funds – local VC funding is scarce in Italy – and individual members have already informally helped international funds to tap into Italian deals. The organization has 24 members so far, but that number is growing. “Very soon we will be around 50 to 60 people,” Benatti said.

The group came together following discussions about the state of Italy’s biopharma industry – and what could be done about it. “We’re optimistic about the potential of the country and about the research that is being performed,” said Benatti. Given its scale – the country is Europe’s third largest economy and has a population of 60 million – Italy has never fulfilled its potential in biotech, notwithstanding the sporadic successes that do arise from time to time. Summit, N.J.-based Celgene Corp.’s eye-catching deal in 2014 to commercialize Nogra Pharma Ltd.’s antisense drug GED-0301 in Crohn’s disease exemplifies the high-quality, under-the-radar innovation ongoing in Italy. That deal was worth $710 million up front, with almost $1.9 billion more to come in potential milestones.

The country has scientific strengths in a number of areas that are highly relevant to biotech. “In terms of the science, I would say gene therapy is clearly one important space. Oncology and probably CNS are two other areas where the science is pretty good in Italy,” Benatti said. It also has good clinical infrastructure, but translational research and funding remain bottlenecks. The biggest problem of all is the lack of a strong entrepreneurial culture within the country’s research community.

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