Today, Tekmira began trading under its new name and new symbol, Arbutus Biopharma Corporation, “ABUS” on Nasdaq. This is one of the final steps in its rebranding as a hepatitis B virus (HBV) focused company.
Since its merger with OnCore earlier this year, Tekmira has really tried to minimize any attention on its legacy RNAi business, going so far as to recently announce its plans to put the majority of its RNAi assets into a “discreet business unit”. Being laser focused on HBV is a strategy that likely will serve the company well in the long term, but for those of us who remember Tekmira as a leader in RNAi drug delivery, it feels like we are saying goodbye to an old friend.
The drift away from its RNAi focus for Tekmira ironically began in late 2013 with the announcement of their plans to develop a RNAi-based HBV drug candidate, TKM-HBV. The announcement that Tekmira would be developing a drug for the enormous HBV market immediately excited investors. Prior to their HBV announcement, Tekmira had struggled to inspire investors with its portfolio of RNAi assets. The company’s delivery platform, lipid nanoparticle (LNP), was the most widely tested and utilized delivery system for the RNAi class, but investors weren’t excited about the limited upside delivery collaborations provided. Recognizing this many years earlier, Tekmira had developed a small portfolio of its own drug candidates, but these products, TKM-PLK1 and TKM-Ebola, also seemed to find limited investor interest. So when the announcement of their HBV candidate struck a chord with investors, the company began to adapt its message accordingly.
The fact that HBV was an area of investor interest was relatively well known. At the time of Tekmira’s announcement of its HBV plans, one of the company’s RNAi peers, Arrowhead Research (Nasdaq:ARWR), had an HBV candidate in human studies and a market cap several multiples bigger than Tekmira. However, the real proof that investor interest in Tekmira had improved was the US$95 they were able to raise in the 6-months following their HBV announcement. Investors were financing an HBV company not a RNAi company, and Tekmira messaged its story accordingly. Call it the beginning of the re-branding.
By mid-2014, Tekmira had become a household name among investors. Unfortunately for the company it was not around HBV, but Ebola. The Ebola crisis in West Africa thrust all Ebola drug developers into the spotlight, some relished the attention, others shied away, Tekmira to their credit was the latter. The company’s market cap oscillated violently around every Ebola news development, yet the company’s message remained intact – HBV was their core focus. Regardless of the company’s messaging, Ebola defined Tekmira for the latter part of 2014, but that changed in early 2015 with the announcement of the merger with OnCore.
In OnCore, Tekmira found a company with a deep portfolio of early-stage HBV drug candidates to complement TKM-HBV, which had just entered Phase I human testing. The combined company could rightfully state that its focus was HBV, the RNAi assets, with the exception of TKM-HBV, pushed to the background. The company then set about formal process of re-branding itself. It de-listed from TSX, changed its name to Arbutus, and tucked its non-HBV RNAi assets into a discreet business unit. It could be argued that the re-branding is now complete, however, one has to wonder whether there is one-step remaining – selling or spinning off their RNAi business unit.
Only time will tell what plans Arbutus has for the legacy RNAi assets. However for those of us who remember the scrappy little Canadian RNAi delivery company known as Tekmira, that company is gone. Its personality and assets have been marginalized inside a polished, well-financed, increasingly U.S.-based, HBV focused company. Arbutus is a better company, but Tekmira will be missed.