Investors in eye-related companies focus on exits

Venture capitalists have put a lot of money over the past couple of years into companies developing treatments for eye disease. Now they’re seeing some return.

Last week, venture backers in LensX Lasers got what looks on paper to be a nice exit that could turn into a much better one, after Alcon announced that it has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire the company. Alcon will pay $361.5 million in cash for LenSX, a developer of a laser used in cataract treatment, plus maximum contingent payments of $382.5 million if it hits agreed-upon milestones.

Four-year-old LenSx, which developed what Alcon says developed is first femtosecond laser to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance for use as a part of cataract surgery, previously raised $32 million in venture funding. The Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based company’s investors include InterWest Partners, SV Life Sciences Advisers, Venture Investors and Versant Ventures.

“Given the current financial environment and the fact that LenSx has only been in operation since early 2007 and has not launched its product yet, this is an excellent exit,” says Jim Adox, managing director of Venture Investors. “Add in the real possibility of an additional $382.5 million via the earnout over time, and this is a fantastic outcome.

The sale of LensX is the second eye-related acquisition in as many months. In June, Bausch & Lomb bought the assets and U.S. rights for Zirgan, a drug approved by the FDA last year as a topical anti-viral for the treatment of corneal ulcers, from Sirion Therapeutics, a venture-backed developer of ophthalmic products. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

Sirion had raised $71 million in VC funding since 2005 from Advent International, Aisling Capital, Atlas Venture and Avalon Ventures.

In September, Abbott Laboratories bought Irvine, Calif.-based Visiogen for $400 million. The company develops technologies for treatment of age-related vision loss, specifically cataracts and presbyopia. Visiogen previously raised $77 million between 2001 and 2009 from venture investors, including Prospect Venture Partners, Sprout Group, Technology Partners, Three Arch Partners, New Leaf Venture Partners and Foundation Medical Partners.

In the past year, VCs have invested in sizeable new rounds for companies in the ophthalmic space as well. Overall, VCs invested $260 million in at least 18 pharmaceutical and med tech companies in the past year, with the word “eye” in their business description, according to data from Thomson Reuters (publisher of PE Week).

For example, Tear Science, which develops therapeutics for dry eye disease, raised $44.5 million in a Series C round in May with backing from new investors Essex Woodland Health Ventures, Investor Growth Capital and General Catalyst.

Lux Biosciences, which develops medications for ophthalmic diseases, raised a $50 million round in October with backing from HBM Bioventures, Novo A/S, Prospect Venture Partners and SV Life Sciences.

And Oraya Therapeutics, which develops a robotically controlled “IRay” system to treat inflammatory diseases of the eye, raised $42 million in a round that closed last July from Domain Associates, Scale Venture Partners, Essex Woodlands Health Ventures and Synergy Life Partners. —Joanna Glasner