Some companies, including Avigen, are fighting back. “I hear that argument” about shareholder rights, said Kenneth G. Chahine, Avigen’s chief. “But it’s really ‘I want to raid the cash.’ We’re back to 1987 and ‘Barbarians at the Gate.’ ”
Such battles have become much more common in recent months, as the stock market crash has pounded the value of many biotech companies to less than the cash on hand. When that happens, investors can realize an immediate return if the company dissolves itself — even if some of the cash will be consumed in closing the company.
In some cases, investors are succeeding. Under pressure from the hedge fund RA Capital Management, for example, Northstar Neuroscience , a medical device company in Seattle whose stroke treatment failed, is proposing to liquidate, with shareholders receiving an estimated $1.90 to $2.10 a share in cash. The company’s stock, which had been as low as 90 cents in November, closed at $1.90 on Monday.
Another company, Trimeris , whose only product, the AIDS drug Fuzeon, has lost sales to newer competitors, halted research and development last year and repaid $55 million — or $2.50 a share — to stockholders. The company continues in business, but with few employees.
And two companies, VaxGen and NitroMed , have canceled planned reverse mergers because of shareholder opposition. In a reverse merger, a publicly traded company essentially cedes its cash and stock listing to a private company with presumably better prospects.
For every Gilead Sciences , which spent $450 million over 15 years and abandoned its original technology before becoming profitable, there have been countless “zombies” — companies that lurch from product to product, surviving years or even decades without ever achieving success.
One company so tarred, by one of its biggest investors, is Penwest Pharmaceuticals .
“The company’s history is an unfortunate progression of failed development programs,” Perceptive Advisors, an investor in the company, wrote in November to Penwest’s board. Perceptive demanded that Penwest cease all research and development and become a virtual company that would just collect royalties on its one successful drug. Penwest defended its track record and said it was sticking to its course.
Some investors say that with capital markets now so tight, the walking dead should be buried to free up financing for more viable companies. “It’s in a time like this that the good companies are being dragged down by the bad ones,” said Oleg Nodelman, a portfolio manager at the Biotechnology Value Fund.
In some cases, however, the investors asking for their money back are not long-suffering shareholders. They are speculators who bought in only after the stock price collapsed, hoping to make a quick killing.
Tang Capital Partners, for instance, began accumulating its 14.9 percent stake in Vanda Pharmaceuticals only after the Food and Drug Administration rejected Vanda’s schizophrenia drug in July. Tang is now pressing for the company to cease all operations and return cash to shareholders. Vanda’s stock is trading at 80 cents, well below the $1.74 a share in cash it had as of Dec. 31.
Vanda says that it is still hopeful that it can get its drug approved and that liquidation is not in the interest of all shareholders.
The Biotechnology Value Fund, often called BVF, was a longtime shareholder in Avigen. But it sold 640,000 shares, nearly all its holdings, for about $3.95 to $4.60 a share. The sale was near the stock’s highs for the year — in the two months before Avigen was scheduled to announce, in October, the clinical trial results of its drug to treat a symptom of multiple sclerosis.