You’re a French doctor specializing in pediatric gastroenterology who teamed up with two partners—Engineer Bertrand Dupont and Professor Christophe Dupont—to explore a novel idea: a diagnostic patch able to detect cow milk allergies in children. The idea soon evolves into a potential treatment for dangerous allergic reactions to cow’s milk and peanuts, for which there are currently no effective treatments. After failing to interest a pharmaceutical company in the concept, you and your partners decide to use your own funds to develop a product. By 2006, you’re on your way to developing not only a diagnostic device but a possible treatment for such allergies. The problem? You’re running out of money.
Those who feel as if they’re hearing far more about life-threatening food allergies than they did a few decades ago are absolutely right. According to the CDC, the number of American children with food allergies has increased by 50 percent since the late 1990s. Why this is happening is a matter of much debate; but for those whose food allergies trigger anaphylactic symptoms, everything from lunching in a school cafeteria to traveling by plane can become a potentially life-threatening situation. In the past, the treatment for severe allergies has typically been avoidance and epinephrine injections administered at the onset of symptoms.
DBV Technologies’ treatment, Viaskin Peanut, takes another approach by aiming to desensitize patients to peanuts by administering low doses of the proteins through the skin. (The company is also developing Viaskin Milk and Viaskin HDM to address allergies to milk and to dust mites.) Similar attempts to desensitize allergic individuals using injections and oral medications are also being studied, but epicutaneous, or non-invasive delivery through the skin, has advantages,
explains CEO Dr. Pierre-Henri Benhamou. (Benhamou is the “B” in DBV; the “D” stands for Dupont brothers and the “V” is for Viaskin.)
“When you inject a product, it goes all over the body, whereas with a patch, you target just the small cells at the surface of the skin,” he says. “You expose the immune system of the skin to the peanut—it’s a very targeted administration. So there is no protein passing into the bloodstream to provoke shock and anaphylaxis.”
The Hurdle Developing any pharmaceutical product is a cost- and time-intensive endeavor and Viaskin has been no different. Financing the research and development and subsequent clinical trials involved required an influx of capital, which, in turn, resulted in Benhamou’s being asked to step down for a time. “In 2006, investors put $12 million into the company and asked me to turn management over to a professional,” he recounts. “It was a catastrophe.”
The Resolution In 2010, the company brought Benhamou back. Still in need of financing, this time the company shunned private capital, instead choosing to take the Bagneux, France-based company public on NYSE Euronext. “We had a very successful fundraising of 20 million euros in 2012, and we raised another 30 million euros last year,” recounts Benhamou. Determined to see its product through commercialization independently, the company didn’t stop there. In September, it filed for another IPO, this time on NASDAQ, raising another 104 million euros.
Comfortable with the contents of its coffers, DBV is now focusing on finishing the clinical development of Viaskin, particularly Viaskin Peanut, and getting ready to bring the product to the U.S. market. While the company initially entertained
the idea of partnering with a major U.S. pharmaceutical company, ultimately Benhamou and his partners opted to fly solo. “We’ve had a lot of interest; but we feel that for this product to be very successful, we need to stay independent,” he explains. “We have more expertise in food allergy than Pfizer or Merck or anyone else right now. Our objective now is to build DBV 2.0.”