UPDATE 1-Astra spins off some R&D into new biotech firm
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LONDON Feb 14 (Reuters) - AstraZeneca Plc (AZN.L) said on Thursday it was spinning off some of its gastrointestinal research operations into a new biotech company backed by a trio of private equity firms.
The move reflects a decision by the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker -- which faces pressure on profits from looming generic competition and recent pipeline setbacks -- to refocus its research efforts.
The new venture, called Albireo, will be financed by a syndicate led by Nomura Phase4 Ventures, and joined by TVM Capital and Scottish Widows Investment Partnership.
AstraZeneca will retain a significant minority stake in Albireo, in exchange for transferring the R&D assets into the new business. It will also have a seat on its board.
A spokesman declined to say exactly how large AstraZeneca's shareholding would be.
The move is not a surprise. AstraZeneca had said on Monday it was studying options for certain of its research assets, following a Swedish newspaper report that a sale or spin-out was imminent.
Gastrointestinal (GI) disease has long been a mainstay for AstraZeneca, whose best-selling medicine is the heartburn and ulcer pill Nexium, which raked in $5.2 billion in global sales last year.
But the London-headquartered group said in 2006 it planned to move away from GI diseases not linked to Nexium and related projects in acid reflux disease.
Albireo, based in Gothenburg, Sweden, takes over one experimental drug in clinical development and a number of pre-clinical GI programmes, as well as certain AstraZeneca research staff.
The company has raised $27 million in its first closing and anticipates receiving up to $40 million in another financing round.
John Goddard, AstraZeneca's head of strategic planning and business development, said the creation of Albireo offered an opportunity to deliver value for shareholders and patients.
"Nomura Phase4 Ventures and its syndicate are leading healthcare investors with proven success in growing biotechnology companies," he said.
An initial public offering for the venture is possible at some stage in the future.
Spinning out non-core research projects into new biotech firms is a well-trodden path for large pharmaceutical companies. A number have used the strategy to focus their portfolios, while retaining some upside in the event of big breakthroughs.
Switzerland's Roche Holding AG (ROG.VX) has been a pioneer of such spin-outs, with the creation of new biotech businesses such as Basilea (BSLN.S) and Actelion (ATLN.VX). (Additional reporting by Marc Jones; editing by David Holmes and Sue Thomas)
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