KU sees first university-rooted company go public

Savara Inc. specializes in inhaled drug therapies for serious lung conditions

For the first time, a company with origins at the University of Kansas has gone public.

Pharmaceutical company Savara Inc. was listed this month on the Nasdaq Capital Market, according to KU, making it the first company with origins at the university to have shares offered on any publicly traded stock exchange.

For stock-watchers, its ticker symbol: SVRA. Stock price on nasdaq.com, as of Friday: $5.30 per share.

Savara, currently based in Austin, Texas, “spun out” from technology first developed in the KU laboratory of Cory Berkland, distinguished professor of pharmaceutical chemistry and chemical and petroleum engineering, according to a news release from KU. Following a “reverse merger” with another firm called Mast Therapeutics, on April 28, Savara’s common stock commenced trading on the Nasdaq Capital Market.

KU’s Savara ownership now is in the form of shares in the company, said Julie Nagel, president of KU Innovation and Collaboration and associate vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship. 

She said after a six-month period of KU’s shares being frozen, the university will be able to make an investment decision on whether to sell them or hold the shares. She declined to say how many shares KU owns, saying that information about KU’s equity is part of a confidential licensing agreement.

Cory Berkland

“We are delighted to see the addition of Savara to the Nasdaq and the part KU research has in the company improving health outcomes and creating potentially life-saving therapies for people in need,” Nagel said, in KU’s news release. “Cory’s work also boosts KU and highlights the commitment our university has to entrepreneurship and driving the economy.”

The Nasdaq Capital Market tier is aimed at companies seeking to grow their capital, according to Nasdaq.

Savara’s products are three inhaled drug therapies for patients with serious or life-threatening respiratory conditions, according to the company website. The products are currently in different phases of development and clinical trials.

Although Berkland remains a shareholder in Savara, according to KU, he’s stepped away from his chief technology officer role, as the company’s products have evolved.

The technology that originally inspired the creation of Savara is actually no longer part of its flagship drug therapy, AeroVanc, according to KU. AeroVanc is a dry-powder form of the antibiotic vancomycin, inhaled to treat chronic MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) lung infections in patients with cystic fibrosis.

Savara’s comparative studies between the original aerosol technology and the spray drying already used in the marketplace were carried out in Berkland’s KU lab, he said.

“Although our aerosol technology helped get the company started and led to corporate partnerships, Savara’s leadership made a wise pivot,” Berkland said, in KU’s news release. “I had to be ready to let my baby go. I didn’t hesitate — I knew it was the best decision for the company.”

Savara did eventually leverage the potential of inhaled vancomycin to acquire another pharmaceutical company in the Netherlands, which made the firm valuable enough to complete the reverse merger with Mast.

Pharmaceutical concepts Berkland developed in his lab have led to the creation of four separate companies, according to KU.

Since beginning his career in academic research, Berkland said he has come to realize the importance of business.

“It’s important to commercialize ideas so that you actually have the opportunity to improve people’s lives,” he said, in KU’s news release.

Berkland said he’s also learned to think like an entrepreneur, and to adapt, as he did with Savara.

“We as faculty and technology innovators tend to think that discovery is what wins the day,” he said. “The technology that created a company in the first place can be leveraged to build momentum, raise money, and develop visibility and interest — but there have been many studies showing very few companies end up doing what they originally set out to do.”