1994 - Biotech pioneer bet the store and lost
Housing construction was up, and commercial construction was up even more. There seemed to be endless green lights and mostly blue skies on the county’s economic horizon.
For the county’s star biotech company, Synergen, however, times were not so good.
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, major universities across the nation were home to an antsy group of some of the best and brightest molecular biologists in the world. The University of Colorado Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, or MCDB, department was no exception. At that time it was home to Larry Gold, Larry Soll, David Hirsh and Michael Yarus. For various individual reasons and one overriding objective — to do something good for the world — they came, in 1981, to found Synergen.
In the beginning, Synergen tried all sorts of ideas. Gold worked on a project that attempted to develop some kind of injectable “thing” that would extract more oil from oil wells that were drying up. Synergen worked with Getty Oil and Texaco on the project, but it came to naught because, as the price of oil dropped in the 1980s, interest in the project dropped accordingly. The company also worked on creating industrial enzymes.
But it was Soll who understood that Synergen’s future was in pharmaceuticals, so that’s the direction the company took. The idea was to move toward the successful development of one pharmaceutical product — Antril.
Antril was touted as a cure for sepsis, an often-deadly blood infection. The drug had performed well in the early clinical trials required by the Food and Drug Administration, but failed in larger phase 3 trials. In February 1994, Synergen revealed that Antril was not the miracle cure many hoped it was and the company’s stock plummeted, taking other biotech stocks with it. By the end of 1994, the once-renowned company had laid off about 60 percent of its workforce, shut down a $20 million manufacturing plant and an office in Japan, and had been taken over by Thousand Oaks, California-based biotech giant Amgen, which still has facilities in Boulder and Longmont.
When Antril failed phase 3, Synergen already had spent $500 million, and the till was nearly empty.
Synergen bet the store on Antril and lost.