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Biotech Class of 2004

The list of public companies in the biotech universe is constantly churning. Through mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies, many familiar names disappear, while dozens of new entrants leap forward through the IPO windows to take their places. I always like a year with a good IPO window, as it gives me new stocks to pore over as I search for winners for Motley Fool Rule Breakers. It's my version of being a football fan on draft day.

According to life sciences merchant bank Burrill & Company, there were 37 biotech IPOs in the most recent window covering 2003 and 2004. That's a healthy influx of new blood, as there are only about 300 publicly traded biotech companies in the U.S.

A few of these newcomers have already surfaced as winners in a very short period, while several others have wasted little time in disappointing us. Neither extreme should be surprising coming from an industry known for feast-or-famine investment performance.

This week, I'll highlight some of the early winners. Keep in mind that many companies out of this IPO window have done well, but I only have space to mention a few. I'll let the companies that have had setbacks toil in obscurity for a bit while working to turn things around. If they are successful in getting on the right track, I'll point them out in the future.

The eyes have it
Eyetech Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: EYET  ) hit the public markets with a bang last January. Shares were issued at $21 and now trade just under $40 for a near double in a single year. Not too shabby, and it is important to note that Eyetech is not a story stock on a temporary run. The company has a real product, which has been the driving force behind the company's increase in value. The drug is Macugen and it is partnered with a company that you may have heard of -- Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  ) .

Eyetech has been a market favorite because Macugen has looked like a good drug for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in people over 50. Last month, the FDA approved Macugen for the treatment of AMD.

A drug called Visudyne from Novartis (NYSE: NVS  ) and QLT (Nasdaq: QLTI  ) is already a player in this market with sales approaching half a billion dollars a year, but a lot of people expect Macugen to eat Visudyne's lunch. I'm not convinced that will be the case because I think there's room for both drugs to do well, given that they work via different mechanisms. In any case, Macugen's approval within one year of the company's IPO marks a clear departure of the days when a biotech company could go public and not have a product anywhere in sight of a launch.

The path to profits
Pharmion (Nasdaq: PHRM  ) issued shares to the public at $14 back in November 2003; at the most recent close, the stock stood at $38 for a near triple. Pharmion has two value drivers at work. The first is the drug Thalidomide Pharmion, which it licensed from Celgene (Nasdaq: CELG  ) and markets in several countries for the treatment of multiple myeloma. The company has stated that thalidomide sales will come in at $64-$65 million for 2004, making this a nice product for a small drug company.

The other important product in Pharmion's portfolio is Vidaza, which was approved by the FDA in May of last year for the treatment of myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). Pharmion says 2004 sales of Vidaza will come in at $45-$47 million for 2004, and it expects 2005 sales in the range of $130-$140 million.

On the backs of these two products, Pharmion will be profitable in 2005, and it is earnings that are moving this stock forward. In the biotech industry, it is rare to achieve profitability so soon after an IPO. In fact, there are many biotechs that went public 10 to 15 years ago that are still operating in the red. So Pharmion has already taken a big leap to the head of the pack.

Drug approval driving share growth
CoTherix (Nasdaq: CTRX  ) went public just two months ago, issuing shares at $6, and already the stock has jumped 50%. The big news propelling this increase was the FDA's approval of the company's Ventavis for the treatment of pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a serious and potentially fatal disease in which the patient has high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs.

Ventavis is a synthetic compound that is similar to prostacyclins, but available in an inhaled formulation. According to the company, it takes five to 10 minutes to take a dose, with six to nine doses a day recommended. This may seem cumbersome to healthy people, but it is actually a competitive advantage over other prostacyclins used to treat PAH because they require continuous infusions of a drug. This dosing convenience could allow the drug to capture meaningful market share. We'll be able to assess the uptake of the drug in this market after the company starts shipping it in the second quarter.

The new era of biotech IPOs
All three of these companies have done very well for investors in a short period of time, based largely on their ability to launch a drug very quickly after the company went public. These are not speculative story stocks where investors are gambling on the slim chance that the company may one day have a product.

Having tangible drugs available for sale shortly after going public speeds the time to financial solvency, representing a stark contrast to previous IPO windows in the sector. Next week, we'll take a look at the IPO class of 1995-1996 to see how those companies have fared after nearly a decade in the Big Show. I can tell you right now that the results are going to be eye-opening for biotech investors.

For additional articles on the drug industry, see:

Motley Fool Rule Breakersbiotech analyst Charly Travers owns shares of QLT. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

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