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AltheRx Pharmaceuticals lands $15 million, new board and CEO

The three-year-old drug development firm is preparing for late-stage clinical trials of an overactive bladder treatment that it acquired from GlaxoSmithKline.

You never know when an acquisition involving the automobile industry in the Midwest in 1998 might affect a drug-development firm in the Philadelphia area in 2013.

But that's apparently the backstory of $15 million in financing completed last week by Exton-based AltheRx Pharmaceuticals.

That round of investment was led by Becker Ventures L.L.C., a family office- investment management firm that manages the wealth of Charles E. Becker, who had been chief executive and co-owner of Becker Group Inc., a privately held automotive- interior supplier.

Becker Group, of Sterling Heights, Ill., was generating annual sales of $1.3 billion when it was bought in 1998 by Johnson Controls Inc., of Milwaukee, for $548 million in cash.

When I last wrote about AltheRx two years ago, the company had acquired solabegron, a compound to treat overactive bladder, from GlaxoSmithKline. At the time, AltheRx CEO Shawn O'Brien would not name the single unidentified private investor backing AltheRx.

But it was clear from last week's announcement that Becker Ventures was the source of that money, because in announcing the financing, AltheRx also named a new CEO and board.

Jim Bennethum, who is executive vice president of Becker Ventures, joined as AltheRx's CEO, replacing O'Brien, who left the company in February. Bennethum's background includes more than 20 years at Johnson Controls.

The company also announced that Charles Becker would be its new chairman of the board.

In 2011, O'Brien said the company was preparing to launch late-stage Phase III clinical trials for the compound to treat overactive bladder, a condition that the Food and Drug Administration says afflicts 33 million Americans.

Eliot Ohlstein, AltheRx's chief scientific officer and a cofounder, said in an interview that over the last two years, the four-employee company had made a lot of technical and regulatory progress. However, Phase III trials are expensive, and raising enough money to finance them has been difficult in the current economy, he said.

AltheRx will be playing catch-up with Astellas Pharma US Inc., which received FDA approval in June for Myrbetriq (chemical name: mirabegron), which is in the same class of drugs as solabegron.

Ohlstein and his fellow AltheRx cofounder, Raymond E. Stevens, who is vice president of operations, will be members of the new board. Two other local life-sciences executives were named to the board: Anthony Zook, who stepped down in January as executive vice president of global commercial operations for AstraZeneca P.L.C., and Jeffrey O'Donnell, a former CEO of PhotoMedex Inc.