The huge Silicon Valley deal (almost) no one is talking about

March 1, 2011, 9:37 PM UTC

When private Silicon Valley companies get acquired for nearly $1 billion, you almost always hear about it. Blogs blare headlines, Twitter begins to trend and everyone pontificates on what this means for the larger venture capital ecosystem (which, in general, is starved for home runs).

But not today. Because the acquired company has nothing to do with social media, mobile, payments or any of the other sectors that get the Valley thought leaders hot and bothered.

That company is Plexxikon, a Berkley, Calif.-based drug company whose lead candidate targets the oncogenic BRAF mutation present in about half of melanoma cancers and about 8% of all solid tumors. Today it agreed to be acquired by Japan’s Daiichi Sankyo for up to $935 million, including an $805 million up-front cash payment and $135 million in potential milestone payments (based, largely, on FDA approval).

Making the sale amount even more impressive is that Plexxikon raised just $66.5 million in VC funding since its 2001 founding — at a top valuation just north of $100 million. Not only does that represent a home run for Plexxikon investors, but is proof that not all VC-backed pharma companies require triple-digit millions to become successful.

“The business model was to raise a relatively small amount of VC early, and then to do the rest internally by partnering with big companies like Wyeth and Roche,” explains Mike Carusi, a general partner with Plexxikon investor Advanced Technology Ventures. “Those partnership deals brought in big, non-dilutive dollars up front, and then milestone payments which allowed us to finance the company without raising too much more outside financing.”

Carusi adds that Plexxikon was able to sign its partnerships because its drug discovery platform was able to create multiple candidates, rather than a single product. Moreover, partnership negotiations meant that Plexxikon management had regular conversations with potential buyers. The final sale process was competitive — albeit without a banker — but Plexxikon had been familiar with Daiichi Sankyo for several years.

In addition to ATV, other Plexxikon investors included Alta Partners, CW Group, GIMV, Pappas Ventures and Walden International.

All of this brings me back to the lead: These types of deals deserve more attention from the financial press (yes, yours truly included).

Approximately one-third of all VC dollars last year were invested into life sciences companies — with biotech trailing software by just $300 million. But do you ever read about life sciences as part of discussions of the VC model’s vitality (or lack thereof)? Of course not, because most people writing about venture capital — including practitioners — find life sciences to be too confusing, too unlikely to draw pageviews or inconvenient to their arguments.

Again, we need to do better.