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Breaking down walls: Big pharma explores new models for collaboration

Partnering in life sciences is breaking new ground, and breaking records. Participation at BIO-Europe® 2017 in Berlin reached a new high with over 4,000 executives attending and with nearly 24,000 one-to-one meetings scheduled.

The last time Europe's largest partnering meeting was held in Berlin in 2000, there were 700 participants and 1,500 meetings scheduled.

In the opening plenary session at this year's event, a panel of leading dealmakers with Johnson & Johnson, Bayer and Sanofi Genzyme talked about how in models for collaboration have changed in that time.

The Managing Partner at SV Life Sciences Advisers, plenary session moderator Kate Bingham provided a 30-second summary, saying, "We heard walls blocking collaboration crumbling with pre-competitive relationship deals. We heard about much earlier and targeted collaboration in hot areas, and we heard about the importance of location for innovation centers, labs or incubators as ways to access people and capabilities as well as pipeline assets. And we heard that the old model of corporate venture funding still works, which is reassuring."

In fact, Bingham sought that assurance right away, checking with each of the major players on the status of their funding.

Boasting that Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation is the oldest venture fund in life sciences, Richard Mason, Head of the London Innovation Centre for J&J said, "Over the past four years the fund has made 89 investments putting USD 1.5 billion into play, which is quite a lot of work."

Hans Lindner, who leads Global External Innovation and Alliances for Bayer, said corporate venture is alive and well, and that he has modified its approach by including venture capital funds in joint efforts, citing the recent participation of Versant Ventures in the USD 225 million acquisition of BlueRock Therapeutics.

He cited another variation on the traditional model with the USD 335 million joint venture with CRISPR Therapeutics to create Casebia Therapeutics to take a lead position in the future of gene editing.

Ulrich Wendt, who leads Diabetes External Innovation for Sanofi said that he calls upon two corporate venture funds, the Sanofi fund for a more traditional pre-licensing, and the Sunrise Fund, which he said "can modify the sequential process of corporate venture by putting all of this into a one-stop shop that is very enabling. The key aspect is to understand ourselves as a partner who reaches out curiously, understand things from the partner's perspective, and then finds the right vehicle to move their innovation to the next inflection point, and hopefully on to the clinic."

300x300 Blog (7)Innovation centers have become the beachhead for large pharma seeking early access to innovation, with J&J, Bayer and Sanofi each offering a different version in different geographies, underscoring the importance that location has taken on recently.

According to Mason, "The importance role for innovation centers is to be present, and to be present significantly. We need to be there, to recruit from the area as well, people from those ecosystems who have the networks from which we benefit."

Stepping up the presence by making top level scientists and facilities available for startups are the JLABS for J&J, and for Bayer, its CoLaborator model.  Both companies operate the labs on a no-strings-attached basis.

Pre-competitive alliances break down walls for collaboration, and break the mold for traditional business development.

Linder with Bayer described the first effort, and the world's largest public-private partnership (PPP) in the life sciences, the Innovative Medicines Initiative sponsored by the European Union.  The goal is to facilitate open collaboration in research to advance the development of medicines in areas of unmet medical need, and accelerate patient access to personalized medicines.

Now in its second iteration, the program is funded through 2020 with a budget of EUR 3.3 billion, half of which comes from the EU, and half from industry partners in the form of in-kind contributions.

"There has been a steep learning curve, " said Linder. "Reviewing the projects over time, we had to admit the outcomes from the first projects were lousy, but now more and more we are seeing benefits and are finding the right metrics for measuring tangible outcomes."

Mason said J&J is committed as well to IMI, saying, "There are some problems that are so big we all do need to come together and with government support. One company could never solve these on their own."

Mason also sits on the board for another pre-competitive open collaboration project called Apollo Therapeutics that brings together J&J, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline with the technology transfer offices of Imperial College London, the University College London, and the University of Cambridge.

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"The idea here is not to create companies," said Mason. "This is about finding intellectual property inside these academic institutions that needs some significant funding and, most importantly, the liberty to move it from an academic idea to a preclinical proof of concept."

"There is just no bureaucracy whatsoever. Which is quite incredible considering there are three large pharma companies and three universities, which have their own reputation for bureaucracy," he said.

The beauty is allowing other people to take you in new directions. It means losing some control. It makes us go into emerging science, where we believe the science needs to go," he said.

According to Lindner with Bayer, "The world is absolutely not standing still. It’s very exciting. We are doing today partnerships and models we would not have thought about 10 years ago, and I am sure in 10 years we will be doing things we are not dreaming about today."

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