Being the CFO of a young, development-stage drug manufacturer is an acute test of patience and fortitude. It involves toiling for perhaps 10 to 15 years not only without profits but also without revenue — or any kind of assurance there will ever be any — as the company’s products work their way through the rigorous Food & Drug Administration approval process. Without ultra-sharp fund-raising, capital-allocation and financial-modeling acumen, the enterprise will surely fail.
It helps if the job is a labor of love, or a mission so solemn that you see success vs. failure as a matter of life vs. death. For Peter Culpepper, it is all that.
Culpepper, 54, has been in charge of finance for 10 years at Provectus Biopharmaceuticals, a cancer-drug maker. Its most developed product, PV-10, is an injectable treatment for advanced cutaneous melanoma. It’s just wound up Phase-2 clinical trials, where it was used effectively among test groups. The company has applied for a “breakthrough therapy” designation for PV-10, which would accelerate the approval process, and also is working on treatments for other forms of melanoma as well as liver and breast cancer.
It was in 1999, when Culpepper was controller at Metromedia International Telecommunications, that cancer, suddenly and sadly, became his passion. His oldest child, Victoria, 5 at the time, was hospitalized for what was initially thought to be an epileptic seizure. The actual diagnosis was far more sobering: brain cancer.
Most of the tumor was surgically removed, leaving the family to evaluate treatment options. It was agonizing. Culpepper and his wife consulted with medical professionals at all of the top cancer hospitals in the greater New York area, where they were living at the time, and didn’t like what they heard. “They were calling for two years of chemotherapy and full-body radiation, just horrific amounts of chemo and radiation,” he says. “We just felt helpless.”
Eventually, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia came up with a more palatable treatment, consisting of a shorter chemotherapy regime and cranial-only radiation. But by that time, Culpepper had made it his business to learn everything he could about brain cancer in particular as well as cancer in general. The family also became involved with the American Cancer Society, the United Way and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “We were on a hunt for how we could take on a role,” Culpepper says. “We had been naïve about the oncology world, but because of my financial background and having helped run companies, I was able to process information and coordinate activities.”
Shortly after Victoria’s cancer treatment, Culpepper accepted a new job as chief accounting officer at Neptec Optical Solutions and moved the family to Tennessee. Meanwhile, though, the education in cancer he’d given himself incubated, and he eventually began thinking about doing something different with his career.
“We had been through a horrific nightmare, and it was still an ongoing ordeal [by 2004]” he says. “So I decided I wanted to help treat cancer.” He began working with a recruiter, who found the opportunity at Provectus. It was Culpepper’s own due diligence on the company’s executive team and product efforts that convinced him it was the right move. It was particularly appealing that Provectus was developing a drug designed to treat tumors without the aid of chemotherapy or radiation.
Asked how comfortable he’s been working at a company with a necessarily uncertain future, Culpepper, 54, says the experience is second to none. “It’s very gratifying as a CFO to facilitate the development of innovation through capital development and resource allocation,” he says.
In addition to retail investments in Provectus stock, 10 years of intense capital formation have included Private Investment in Public Entity (PIPE) offerings, registered direct deals, and a so-far-untapped $100 million shelf registration. A big step for the company came this year when its stock — which had been trading on the OTCQB market — qualified for listing on the New York Stock Exchange’s MKT market for small-cap companies. Trading there commenced on May 16.
“Capital formation is more efficient as a listed entity,” he says. “For instance, now that we’re a covered entity under the National Securities Market Improvement Act of 1996, we can access capital structures like [at-the-market (ATM) stock offerings] that allow our cost of capital to go down significantly.” But while the company already has a deal with Cantor Fitzgerald for $50 million of ATM placement shares, it has no intention of tapping that anytime soon. “We’ve said in our SEC filings that we have enough capital for our operating plans well into 2015, and our investors are very sensitive to dilution,” Culpepper says.
That could change, of course. Culpepper notes that it’s common to spend $1 billion bringing a cancer drug to market, and so far Provectus is in for only $150 million. “Whether it will make sense in the future depends a lot on what the FDA does,” he acknowledges. “But we’re also in discussions with potential partners about up-front exclusive geographic licenses that would provide non-dilutive cash flow.”
Lining up such partners would be just the latest victory for Culpepper. Daughter Victoria, now 20, is a cancer survivor.