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WASHINGTON The controversy surrounding PresidentTrump’s nominee for health secretary involving the biotech stockhe bought at a discountalong with Rep. Senate office.
It was December 2005, and Collins at the time just a Clarence businessman involved in a biotech firm called ZeptoMetrics went to visit Clinton. He broughtalong one of his company’s clients, a New Zealand businessman named Simon Wilkinson. They wanted to tell her about a big idea that Wilkinson’s company was chasing: a treatment for the deadly anthrax virus.
But Clinton got called away so Collins and Wilkinson talked. Wilkinson, a Royal New Zealand Navy officer turned finance guy turned biotech entrepreneur, told Collins that maybe, just maybe, his company’s research could lead to treatments for AIDS and a host of other diseases besides those caused by anthrax.
Hearing that, Collins wanted to invest. He asked Wilkinson to change his travel plans and come to Buffalo. There, Collins helped recruit financial support that kept Wilkinson’s tiny biotech firm alive for more than a decade even though none of its experiments have yet turned into commercial products.
“Chris is a major evangelist for this company,” said Tom McMahon, president and CEO of CUBRC Inc., a Buffalo research and development firm that years ago invested in Wilkinson’s company,now called Innate Immunotherapeutics.
Collins’ preaching turned to trouble, though, for Rep. Tom Price, the Georgia Republican that Trump nominated to be health secretary. Collins was later elected to the House of Representatives, and while in Congress, he told Price about Innate. Price invested in the company. He and Collins both got a 12 percent discount in a private stock sale last year a deal that Democrats attack as inappropriate.
[RELATED: Chris Collins under fire for ‘”suspicious” stock trades]
“We need answers to this regarding whether you and Congressman Collins used your access to non public information when you bought (stock) at prices that were unavailable to the public,” Sen. Patty Murray, D Wash., told Price at a recent confirmation hearing.
What went unexplained at that hearing, though, is that by putting money down on Innate Immunotherapeutics, Price and Collins made more of a bet than an investment.
They bet that, after years of struggle and failure,
Wilkinson’s company had developed a product that could help people with multiple sclerosis and maybe other horrific illnesses.
To hear Wilkinson tell it, his relationship with Chris Collins began as many business relationships do: with one company selling products to another.
Wilkinson formed his company then called Virionyx in 2000. Three years later, it started buying HIV proteins from ZeptoMetrics, one of several companies that already had made Collins a millionaire.
The two men did not meet until December 2005, when they hoped to enlist Clinton’s support for another one of Wilkinson’s ventures that Collins’ company was involved in: a treatment for anthrax. Department of Defense might be interested in that new anthrax treatment. And they thought Clinton could make the Pentagon pay attention.
Whenshe didn’t show up, Wilkinson took the time to muse about his company’s future. Virionyx was developing a technology that could conceivably cure a range of ills, he said. It just needed money to fund its research.
“I told him we were raising funds for the company, and that started off our journey together,” Wilkinson said in a telephone interview from New Zealand, where he lives.
That journey quicklytook Wilkinson to Buffalo. With Collins’ help, he met a core of investors that laid money down on Virionyx.
That core of investors still props up Wilkinson’s company, which changed its name to Innate Immunotherapeuticsin 2009.
Collins owns 17 percent of the company’s stock and is the company’s largest investor. His adult son and daughter rank in the top five. Glenn Arthurs, managing director of the UBS investment firm in Buffalo, ranks eighth. An investment firm run by local businessman Paul Harder, a longtime friend of Collins, ranks 11th. CUBRC ranks 17th.
Many of those investors stuck with Wilkinson’s company through a lot of tough times.
His company’s AIDS treatment never got off the ground because other companies got to the market first with drugs that turned AIDS into a treatable condition. government support, said Wilkinson, Innate’s managing director and CEO.
A treatment for severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS, a virus that killed 774 in a worldwide epidemic in 2002 and 2003 went nowhere because the epidemic ended.
“SARS never came back,” Wilkinson said. “We were definitely disappointed. We’ve still got some lovely antibodies to SARS in the freezer.”
Amid all those troubles, Wilkinson’s company had at least two “near death experiences,” he said.
For salvation and the money to keep going Wilkinson looked to Buffalo as well as New Zealand and Australia, where the company is now headquartered. At least six times, the company turned to private investors in those places to raise funds.
“Chris and the group of sophisticated investors in upstate New York have been absolutely critical to our company moving forward,” Wilkinson said. “Without that entire group’s ongoing support for the company,
I doubt very much that we would be here today.”
The investors who have stuck with Wilkinson’s company and those who bought in recently did so for a reason.