‘Alpine Angels’ investment ready to pay off? | VailDaily.com

‘Alpine Angels’ investment ready to pay off?

EAGLE COUNTY – Bacteria may be the most persistent form on life on this planet, and fighting bacterial infections has become one of modern medicine’s biggest jobs. A group of local investors may be able to claim credit for a big change in the way that battle is fought.

The “Alpine Angels” investment group was founded by Gary Mesch. Several years ago, the group got involved in MicroPhage, a company developing new technology that can identify infectious bacteria in a matter of hours. Testing used to take a couple of days, and bacteria can be devilishly hard to properly identify.

After years of work, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has evaluated MicroPhage, and recently issued a press release announcing the results of clinical testing. That release amounts to an endorsement of MicroPhage, something that happens only rarely.

Reached on a golf course in Florida, Mesch was eager to talk about the latest developments in the company’s growth, and the involvement of local investors to get MicroPhage ready for commercial distribution.

The technology of using specific viruses to identify bacteria was first developed at Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Mesch got involved with the partners who were already negotiating with the school to use the technology, then tried to put together an investor group to back the project.

Mesch’s work created a network of friends, friends of friends and others, most of whom either live in the valley or visit frequently. The group has invested millions in MicroPhage, with no guarantee of success.

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Long odds

With the first investments in, the road ahead was daunting for MicroPhage. Companies, even those with great ideas, are more likely to fail than succeed. The odds are much longer for companies that need to pass federal scrutiny of medical treatments.

Dr. Tom Merchant was one of the early investors. An anesthesiologist, Merchant knows too well about the dangers of bacterial infections – especially drug-resistant infections – in hospitals. He was also attracted by what he called the scientific purity of the MicroPhage concept.

That attraction to the relatively simple science behind the idea has kept Merchant involved.

“It took a lot of intestinal fortitude to stick with it,” Merchant said. “Last year it didn’t look good.”

The peaks and valleys for any new product or technology make it tough to keep investors interested, Mesch said. The fact so many of the Alpine Angels stuck with the idea is a testament both to the idea and the people backing it, he added.

“We were near death a number of times,” Mesch said. “But they dug deep and stayed with it.”

The reason, he said, is that people liked the idea, for either personal or professional reasons. Some, like Merchant, know first-hand about the battle against drug-resistant staph. Others have seen friends or family members struggle with infections.

But the feds’ recent announcement about MicroPhage means the investors might be rewarded for their faith.

A recent press release about MicroPhage includes a statement from Alberto Gutierrez, director of the Office of In Vitro Diagnostics at the FDA.

“Clearing this test gives health care professionals a test that can confirm … and then identify whether the bacteria is (drug resistant),” Gutierrez wrote. “This not only saves time in diagnosing potentially life-threatening infections but also allows health care professionals to optimize treatment and start appropriate contact precautions to prevent the spread of the organism.”

The next step

With clinical testing and a de facto endorsement from the feds, MicroPhage’s next step is selling the systems. That’s going to require an established partner, Mesch said.

“If we got another $20 million today, we’d do marketing ourselves and still look for partners,” Mesch said.

What MicroPhage is looking for is a company that already sells and distributes lab equipment or testing services.

That will give the investors a chance to recoup what they’ve put up so far – and then some, if things go well.

But that’s only part of the reason Dr. Jim Garel got involved. Garel, an oral surgeon, doesn’t see as many bacterial infections as Merchant, but he’s seen his share, and knows full well how dangerous they are.

“It’s a huge deal,” Garel said. “It gets the (treatment) process moving days earlier. It’s going to change how treatment occurs.”

Merchant agreed.

“The commercialization is of interest, of course,” Merchant said. “But it’s exciting to think about what kind of impact it can have. … We’re addressing a global problem.”

And, while MicroPhage is focused on the various kinds of staph infections now, the bacteria-identification technology can be adapted to identify virtually any kind of bacteria.

“This isn’t just one product,” company CEO Don Mooney said. “There are multiple pathogens and antibiotics this can address, such as E. coli.”

And, Mooney added, Mesch and the Alpine Angels were crucial to the success MicroPhage seems poised to enjoy.

“Their passion and desire to see it through kept (MicroPhage) alive,” Mooney said. “It’s beyond dedication – it’s a real belief in the product and the need for it.”

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.