The title is probably meant to gall; it certainly raises my hackles. The most obvious quibble is that it isn't clear either of the drug development companies were really biotech. Of course, that would require defining biotech, but it ideally it would refer to companies which highly depend on recombinant DNA and related technologies. Now, such technologies are embedded in virtually all drug development today, but neither of these drugs sounds like they used much. Both drugs are interesting twists on prior approaches (though I'm not enough of a chemist to judge the novelty of vilazodone).
Lisdexamfetamine is an attempt to make an amphetamine less abusable by linking it to lysine; the linkage is designed to slow absorption via the GI tract while making it non-absorable by other routes. However, despite this intent, it is apparently treated by the FDA as just as abusable as other drugs in the class.
Vilazodone combines the mechanism of action of two different antidepressant classes: it is both a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) and a partial agonist for serotonin receptors (again, I'm not experienced enough to know to what degree do any prior drugs exhibit both modes of action).
However, Intrexon, from the little bit which can be gleaned from its website and from the article, is apparently going great guns into synthetic biology (plus, they snagged the dna.com domain!). Their base technology is apparently a modular DNA construction strategy, but beyond that there are few details. Claims are made to have exquisite control over transcription in virtually any host. Modesty is not a commodity they deal in:
Kirk says. “If we were in the business of publishing, we could get the cover of Science magazine any issue we wanted,” he boasts.. One hopes Kirk has gotten some outside experts to peek under the hood; given his background it is difficult to see him as skilled to evaluate such approaches, and Intrexon certainly hasn't made anything public which would enable such a vetting.
What is Intrexon applying their platform to? Well, pretty much everything. Agriculture. Generic protein therapeutics. Novel protein therapeutics. Synfuels. Gene therapy. Industrial products. Consumer products. Small molecule therapeutics. In other words, just about anything that can be imagined that synthetic biology might be applied to.
Sounds a bit familiar: Codon dabbled in many of these (never gene therapy, but then on the other hand there was some far-out stuff that still remains secret). Any platform company tries to leverage their platform in as many spaces as they think it will work -- and tend to see all the world as spaces in which their platform can work. That wasn't just Codon's thinking but clearly Millennium's during the first half decade I was there: small molecule medications, protein therapeutics, antibodies, agriculture -- even the entire healthcare information system. We were going to remake it all. If synfuels had been in style, I'm sure Millennium would have spawned a division there (come to think of it, I think something along those lines did get discussed).
The promise is that lessons learned in one area will be applicable to others; that's the whole concept of a platform. If each project is based on the platform and requires just small project-specific stuff which can't be replicated around in other platforms, then the whole system should fly to the moon!
Unfortunately, that's where platform companies tend to break down. The truth is that most project areas are primarily dealing with issues outside the platform. The deeper you get into a therapeutic project, for example, the less synthetic biology or genomics or anything can contribute. That's not to say their contribution goes to zero, but on a relative scale other things take over. It's hard to see how synthetic biology, for example, will help you design and recruit a clinical trial. Because those later stage projects, with little to no reliance on the platform, are far more valuable than early stage projects which do rely on the platform, many platform companies tone down or abandon the platform once they have some late stage product candidates. Sure, it would be great to replenish the pipeline, but when the choice is forced as to where cash is spent, close-to-market always trumps cool early technology. And, this all assumes you get to a late stage product; by working on everything there is a great risk of succeeding at nothing as a fat portfolio of good projects prevents the emergence of a few great projects.
So I wish them well and hope they can avoid this trap, and by doing so perhaps be the first company to get to market with their platform intact.
What's really irksome is that title "smartest investor". In general, Wall Street and the media are far too willing to ascribe to genius what cannot actually be distinguished from luck. Kirk's had two sizable successes (which, of course, trumps my track record), but both were in relatively well-trodden ground. Even so, if a little bit of the uncertainty of these projects had gone the wrong way, nobody would be touting him as a genius. For example, imagine vilazodone had stumbled on some idiosyncratic toxicity. At least that is somewhat novel; it sounds generous to credit lisdexamfetamine with being anything other than a very small incremental improvement on the existing compounds. Perhaps Kirk's greatest genius was selling his companies at the right time. This is far different than pushing very novel therapeutics from their bare beginnings to the finish line.