EMD Serono Inc., a subsidiary of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, announced the creation of TocopheRx, a Boston-based spin-off company resulting from the Entrepreneur Partnership Program (EPP) launched by Merck Serono, the biopharmaceutical division of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, in April 2012.

TocopheRx, the eighth spin-off in the EPP, will focus on the development of oral follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) agonists for treatment of infertility, by advancing EMD Serono’s preclinical program toward clinical testing. The affiliate of EMD Serono will initially invest $3.2 million (approx. €2.4 million) in seed funding. MS Ventures, the corporate venture arm of Merck Serono, will manage the investment and will be represented on the company’s board of directors.

FSH administration today is a standard hormonal treatment to help women and men with the unfulfilled desire to have children. TocopheRx strives to further investigate the potential role of oral FSH agonists in fertility treatment protocols.

“The new company creation around EMD Serono’s promising asset in the fertility space represents a unique opportunity to bring forward an innovative investigational product through externalization in a capital-efficient manner,” said Belén Garijo, president and chief executive officer of Merck Serono, the biopharmaceutical division of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. “It demonstrates our continued commitment to developing the next-generation of infertility treatments and required technologies, with the goal to improve the success rate of in vitro fertilization procedures.”

The founders of TocopheRx are Stephen Palmer, Chief Scientific Officer at TocopheRx, Selva Nataraja, head of Biology, and Henry Yu, head of Medicinal Chemistry. Stephen Palmer was the head of the fertility research group at Merck Serono for 9 years, 2004-2013. Building on this highly experienced team combining scientific and drug discovery expertise with specific experience in the field of fertility, TocopheRx aims to bring a significant contribution to pharmaceutical approaches of infertility treatment. The seed financing will support the company to develop the asset from lead optimization to identification of a clinical candidate, and seek further financing and partnership opportunities for further development.

“Fertility research continues to be an important focus of R&D innovation. This seeding approach will enable us to further support the development of an oral FSH agonist, a promising early asset that we hope will help couples seeking fertility solutions,” said Annalisa Jenkins, head of Global Research & Development for Merck Serono.

Infertility is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the inability of a couple to achieve conception or bring a pregnancy to term after a year or more of regular, unprotected sexual intercourse. It is estimated that over 70 million couples in the world are infertile. As the world leader in the treatment of infertility, EMD Serono has developed a comprehensive range of treatments designed to aid the estimated 1 in 10 couples of childbearing age who seek medical help for infertility.

Announced in April 2012 in the framework of the efficiency measures being taken by EMD Serono, the EPP is part of a €30 million commitment to support the creation of spin-off and start-up companies focused on continuing activities and compounds that originated at EMD Serono. Initially, the program was aimed at reducing the impact on employment following the announced closure of the Geneva headquarters due to the restructuring. Since 2012, the EPP has contributed to the successful creation of local biotech start-up and service companies in Switzerland, but has been extended to former Merck Serono employees worldwide as well.

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