Teeny particles attract big money

Liquidia's work on a nanotechnology flu vaccine brings in venture capital.

Staff WriterJanuary 19, 2010 

A Durham company developing new vaccines and other products using tiny particles has raised $20 million in venture capital financing.

Liquidia Technologies plans to use the money to continue clinical testing of its experimental flu vaccine based on nanotechnology.

The company, which employs 46, previously raised more than $30 million in venture financing. In addition, Liquidia and its founder, N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill chemist Joseph DeSimone, won a $3 million federal grant in December.

The latest funding will carry Liquidia "well into 2011" and pay for the hiring of at least 10 workers to prepare for human tests later this year, CEO Neal Fowler said.

"You celebrate for about a day, then it's back to execution," he said.

This region is home to dozens of young companies supported by venture capitalists who are betting on big payouts down the road. The risk is that promising technologies fizzle or require too much money to become successful.

Liquidia is an attractive investment because its nanotechnology could be used for a variety of different products such as new medicines and solar-energy products, said Steve Nelson, a partner at the Wakefield Group, one of the company's early investors.

"Typically, you get one shot on goal," Nelson said. "With Liquidia, I invest once and have lots of different opportunities."

Another plus: Liquidia's leadership, including De Simone and Fowler, provide another key component a promising young company needs, Nelson said.

In 2008, DeSimone won the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lemelson Prize, known as the "Oscar for inventors."

Fowler joined Liquidia that year after serving as president of Centocor, a biotech subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.

As work and clinical testing continue on the flu vaccine, Liquidia also is exploring experimental cancer treatments and inhaled therapies, all based on the nanotechnology developed by DeSimone.

"This is certainly one of the most unique technologies on the planet," Fowler said.

The latest venture funding was led by Canaan Partners, a Menlo Park, Calif., investment firm.

Other investors included Pappas Ventures of Research Triangle Park.

alan.wolf@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4572

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