BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Some drug companies responded to the worsening Ebola epidemic in West Africa last fall by accelerating development of drugs and vaccines to treat or prevent the deadly virus. Hemispherx BioPharma (HEB) saw Ebola as an opportunity to use a public health disaster and raise money through the sale of company stock.
If Hemispherx follows the script used with prior financings, 10% of the cash raised will land in the pockets of CEO Bill Carter and Tom Equels, the company's vice chairman and lawyer.
In the five-month period starting at the end of September, Hemispherx sold almost 25 million shares of company stock, according to regulatory filings. That's equivalent to the amount of stock sold by Hemispherx in the first nine months of 2014. Hemispherx is a penny stock with each share valued at between 22 and 37 cents per share over the past five months.
All of Hemispherx's stock sales were done through an At The Market financing arrangement with the investment bank Maxim. ATMs differ from traditional follow-on offerings in that the investment bank or broker is permitted to sell a continuous stream of company shares to the public at current market prices. The sale of company stock through an ATM is not disclosed publicly except in SEC filings at the end of each quarter or fiscal year. Once an ATM is set up, it's always on, with company shares sold in dribs and drabs into the market, just like previously issued shares trading hands between investors.
As Hemispherx directed Maxim to ramp up the ATM stock sales starting last September, the company did its part to juice retail investor interest by issuing a blizzard of press releases. A majority of the Hemispherx media announcements related to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which at the time was becoming a major news story in the U.S.
The Hemispherx press releases touted its experimental drug Ampligen as a possible Ebola therapy. The company failed to mention that it has promoted Ampligen as a treatment or cure for pandemic diseases for the past 30 years without success. Twice in the past five years, Hemispherx sought to gain U.S. approval for Ampligen. The FDA rejected both applications, citing insufficient clinical data collected from poorly conducted clinical trials.
Some of the recent press releases issued by Hemispherx claimed that U.S. Army medical researchers were working with the company to develop Ampligen as an Ebola treatment. The truth was far less impressive: Hemispherx merely paid the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to conduct animal studies. USAMRIID later rebuked Hemispherx, stating publicly that there was no collaboration with the company to develop Ampligen against the Ebola virus.
Hemispherx executives did not respond to email seeking comment.
Hemispherx's PR blitz achieved its desired effect. Trading volume in the Hemispherx stock increased significantly from September into the new year, allowing Maxim to accelerate the sale of company shares through the ATM financing vehicle.
The nearly 25 million shares of Hemispherx stock sold since the end of September delivered more than $8 million in net proceeds to the company, SEC filings indicate.
From the start of 2014 through March 1, 2015, Hemispherx has used the Maxim ATM to sell almost 50 million shares of company stock, raising more than $18 million, SEC filings indicate. Use of the ATM increased the number of Hemispherx shares outstanding by 30% in the same time period.
Since the inception of the Maxim ATM in July 2012, Hemispherx has sold more than 80 million shares of company stock for net proceeds of $41.13 million, according to SEC filings.
Hemispherx set up the ATM right before FDA rejected Ampligen for the second time. Since then, the company has conducted no new human clinical trials of any drugs, according to publicly available databases.
Instead, it has focused on issuing promotional press releases and selling stock continuously into the market. Under the current terms of the ATM, Maxim is only allowed to sell a maximum of 90 million shares of Hemispherx stock. But on Friday, Hemispherx filed papers with the SEC to raise the ATM share ceiling to 117.6 million -- the fifth increase since July 2012.
The more stock Hemispherx sells, the more money goes directly to CEO Carter and lawyer Equels. Under an unusual arrangement for insiders -- approved by Hemispherx's board of directors -- Carter and Equels are each paid special bonuses equal to 5% of the net proceeds raised by the Maxim ATM.
Carter and Equels each received $1.15 million and $12,000, respectively, as special bonuses tied to money raised by the company in 2012 and 2013.
Hemispherx has not filed its 10-K annual report and proxy statement for 2014 so the most recent "ATM bonuses" for Carter and Equels have not yet been disclosed. But based on the $41 million raised by Hemispherx via the Maxim ATM since inception, Carter and Equels could each pocket more than $2 million.
The bonuses are granted on top of Carter's regular salary of $1.18 million in 2013. Equels earned $721,000 in salary in the same year, according to the company's proxy statement.
Hemispherx did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Adam Feuerstein writes regularly for TheStreet. In keeping with company editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, although he owns stock in TheStreet. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Feuerstein appreciates your feedback;
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