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Drug delivery startup SpringLeaf shrivels, but management team has plans to try again

Posted by Scott Kirsner  April 3, 2013 11:00 AM

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A once-promising drug delivery startup that sprang from the labs of two high-profile MIT professors has run out of money without actually delivering a product. SpringLeaf Therapeutics raised more than $20 million from local VC firms Flybridge Capital Partners, North Bridge Venture Partners, and Excel Venture Management to develop a new kind of wearable pump system that would infuse drugs into patients subcutaneously, without requiring visits to a clinic or hospital. But the Boston company ceased to exist last month, according to a filing with Delaware's Division of Corporations. SpringLeaf spent most of its lifespan trying to perfect its complex battery-powered delivery system, but never got to the point of conducting a clinical trial.

That may not be the end of the SpringLeaf story, however. Pieter Mundendam, right, the former BG Medicine chief executive who was brought on last September to lead SpringLeaf, has acquired some of the company's assets. He has formed a new entity, scPharmaceuticals, to continue work on a wearable pump. Working alongside Muntendam are three other veterans of SpringLeaf, including chief scientific officer Glenn Larsen.

scPharma's website says it will focus on using the pump to deliver a diuretic to heart failure patients, helping to control the fluid buildup that often sends the patient back to the hospital; SpringLeaf had focused, at least for a time, on delivering the blood product immunoglobulin to patients with compromised immune systems, according to one former SpringLeaf employee. But the company encountered problems getting prospective partners interested in its technology, and also in reducing the size of the device, according to this ex-employee, who requested anonymity.

Muntendam told me this morning that he wasn't ready to share specifics about the funding he is raising for scPharma, but he said it will rely on a different delivery technology that he expects will be less expensive to produce, deliver drugs more precisely, and face "a lower regulatory hurdle" than what SpringLeaf had been working on. (Muntendam did say in a later e-mail that several of SpringLeaf's investors "are considering participating in scPharmaceuticals.") The new delivery technology comes from Switzerland, he says, and scPharma won't be relying on the original intellectual property out of MIT.

In the final months of SpringLeaf's existence, he says, "We were changing the path of the company," turning it into a pharmaceutical company that would develop its own formulation of drugs that could be delivered with its device, in an effort to attain higher profit margins. But there wasn't sufficient financial support — or patience — from SpringLeaf's backers. He calls scPharma "a Phoenix company rising out of that," adding that developing a device capable of keeping patients out of the hospital is "a great opportunity."

SpringLeaf had been based at the Photonics Center incubator space at Boston University. At one point, it had 14 employees. Its technology traced its roots to the labs of MIT profs Michael Cima and Yet-Ming Chiang. (Chiang was also a scientific founder of battery-maker A123 Systems, now defunct). I first wrote about SpringLeaf, then known as Entra Pharmaceuticals, in mid-2009. I mentioned the company in a Boston Globe column last Sunday, but when I tried to reach company executives and investors and got no reply, it was clear something was afoot.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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