Branding Biotech

When a judge ruled this summer that Advancis Pharmaceutical Corp. had to change its name because it was too similar to another company's, it was a significant setback. But it offered a chance for the Germantown drugmaker to do better.

"One of the things that is important to us is to have our own unique identity here, and this gives us an opportunity to do that," said Edward M. Rudnic, Advancis' chief executive. "There's an opportunity to make us a little more unique."


While biotech and pharmaceutical companies have come up with some creative titles for their drugs, they typically pick business names that make them sound like one of the pack. It is a strategy often used in the hope that the companies will capture some of their competitors' cachet, branding consultants say.

But that is beginning to change as drugmakers increasingly market directly to consumers (who are used to names with zing, such as Google and Xerox) rather than only to doctors. And some have learned to regret pigeonholing themselves by a particular science. Of the 370 biotech companies in the state, for example, 60 of them have some form of "gene" in their names -- a nod to the genome revolution of 2000 that has not delivered on its promises.


"That club is a bit tarnished now, but those companies are stuck in that moment in time. It's like having a '.com' at the end of your name," said branding consultant Steve Manning, chief executive of California's Igor International. "You don't want to do what everybody else is doing."

More companies have taken that to heart, opting to change names after they have incorporated, even without the threat of a lawsuit.

In Georgia, First Horizon Pharmaceutical Corp. recently switched its name to Sciele Pharma (a combination of the words "elegant" and "science") to sound less generic. California pain-relief company Corgentech changed its name to Anesiva, which has roots meaning life and relief, to sound less cold and corporate.

The companies were "looking for a name that's going to differentiate them," said Scott Piergrossi, director of creative development at Miami-based Brand Institute, which helped develop both new names.

Still, in a relatively young industry that focuses on serious health issues, some executives are reluctant to go too far out on a limb. They are also aware that their prime audiences are still investors and physicians, which has led many biotechs to pick names that might hold weight with those groups.

Rudnic chose the name Advancis, founded in 1999, because when you say it quickly it sounds like "advances" -- as in the "advances in medicine" that he wanted associated with the company. Five other businesses in the state, which considers biotech among its top industries, also have names that begin with some form of the word "advanced."

Biotech businesses began cropping up in the late 1980s. In the years that followed, "companies started creating names around some of the common core words," such as "bio" and "cell" and "immune," said James L. Dettore, chief executive of Brand Institute.

"Over time, it's become so cluttered that now it's becoming a real problem for a lot of biotech companies that are now starting up," Dettore said.


With fewer "core words" to choose from and concerns over trademark infringement multiplying, biotech businesses are taking cues from more creative drug names, such as Paxil and Celexa. Executives are more frequently manipulating multiple words into one, such as Sciele, or picking obscure terms that have personal meaning.

The word "alba" worked for Blake Paterson and his business partner Alessio Fasano. It is the ancient Gaelic name for Scotland, where Paterson has roots, and he says it symbolizes "rising sun," which suggests a bright future. In Spanish, which Paterson speaks, "alba" means "dawn." And then there's the Italian connection for Fassano: Alba is the name of a wine region in Italy.

"It all fits," said Paterson, chief executive of Baltimore-based Alba Therapeutics, which is developing a treatment for celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders.

Craig M. Liddell went with Amulet Pharmaceuticals for his company name, thinking of the many charms that can fit on a necklace and his technology's multiple applications. The Halethorpe business, set to move to Rockville next year, is working on projects that focus on everything from diabetes to self-disinfecting contact lens cases. Liddell, the chief executive, said he hopes "Amulet" is broad enough to encompass all those ideas.

People in the business of branding suggest biotechs pick names that can change with the business and don't lock companies into one area of science. They should be easy to remember and attention-grabbing, but not ridiculous. Industry consultants said some companies are choosing obtuse names that do not connect with consumers, investors or doctors.

"There are times when I pull a CEO aside and say 'What were you thinking?'" said Michael J. Werner, president of the Werner Group, a biotech consulting firm in Washington.


The processes that companies use to choose their names are varied. Many, like the heads of Alba Therapeutics, go it alone, while others hire consultants.

After receiving a cease-and-desist type of letter from Genome Therapeutics in 2000, Therapeutic Genomics held a contest.

"We had [employees] submit possible names, which ranged from combinations of Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes to other, very techie kinds of names to Avalon [Pharmaceuticals]," said chief executive Kenneth C. Carter.

In a vote, the latter won, backed up by the rationale that King Arthur's Avalon is a magical place of eternal life where a woman with healing powers lives.

"In the end, we've been very pleased with it. It's fun to sort of give the connection to the king," said Carter, whose Germantown company is developing cancer therapies.

A few doors away on the same street, Advancis has pulled out all the stops.


Rudnic has hired two consultant companies and created an internal naming team. About a dozen names have made it to the short list, with three of them on the "very, very short list."

According to the criteria, the new name must be reminiscent of the old one and enable the company to keep its ticker symbol "AVNC," and, said Rudnic, "We would like to pick a name that won't get us sued."

The change was forced this summer after a judge ruled that Advancis was too similar to Aventis.

Rudnic, who expects to soon bring a new antibiotic to market based on the company's time-release technology, said he hopes to announce the new name next month and begin its rollout in February.

"Hopefully," he said, "we won't have to pull too many letters off the building."