French specialty pharmaceutical firm Ipsen last week announced it will pay the Salk Institute for Biological Studies as much as $12.5 million over the next five years to create the Ipsen Life Sciences Program at the Salk Institute.
The program, the La Jolla, Calif.-based institute’s first-ever corporate-sponsored research agreement, will fund both applied disease research of interest to Ipsen and basic biological research.
In addition, the program may contribute to a growing desire at the institute to commercialize more of its IP, a Salk official told BTW this week.
Under the terms of the agreement, Ipsen will sponsor research at the Salk Institute for up to five years at a cost of about $2.5 million each year.
A spokesperson for Ipsen said that although the agreement will be reviewed after three years, Ipsen will most likely fund the program for five years.
According to Inder Verma, coordinator of the new program at Salk, research will be funded through one of three types of grants: targeted, core, and innovation.
Under the targeted research grants, Ipsen will provide funding for research in the field of proliferative diseases, with a particular emphasis on developing therapeutics for pituitary adenomas. Ipsen will provide approximately $750,000 per year toward these grants, which will be awarded to Salk faculty conducting research exclusively in this area.
“[Ipsen] is interested in certain cancer mouse models for pituitary tumors,” said Verma, who is also a professor of genetics and molecular biology at the institute.
“A number of people at Salk are already working on mouse models, so for them this adds to the science they are doing,” Verma said. In return, the company “will take advantage” of these models for its own discovery programs, he added.
Ipsen will have first right of refusal for a worldwide, royalty-bearing license for any invention disclosures or intellectual property created under the targeted research grants. If Ipsen is not interested in licensing or further developing a particular technology, the Salk Institute will be free to offer it to any interested party.
The second kind of grants, for core research, will receive $1.25 million per year from Ipsen. These grants have minor limitations in that they will be awarded to Salk scientists studying inflammation and its role in cancer, neurodegenerative disease, metabolic syndrome, and aging.
“All the faculty members willing to participate in one of the four areas of research listed above will receive a notice after the signing of the memorandum of agreement,” Ipsen said in a statement. “The precise mechanism of the selection of the awardees will depend on the type of response and their commitment to study the inflammatory pathways in the proposed areas. In some cases, outside experts will be solicited to help in the process of decision making.”
Verma added that “what [Ipsen is] … really interested in is to know what science is going on here. We’ll have twice-a-year meetings to tell them what’s going on. We’re not obligated to tell them what we don’t want to, particularly if we have not published. But they just want to be kept informed, so first knowledge.”
The innovation grants are the least restrictive and will receive about $500,000 per year in funding from Ipsen. Verma said that this money will become part of an ongoing “innovation fund” at Salk that sponsors research in every field of study at the institute.
These grants are awarded to faculty members following review by their Salk Institute peers. “There Ipsen is basically contributing to the general good of the science,” Verma said. “They will be informed who has won the grants, but that will be the extent of it.” In a statement Ipsen said that these grants are intended to primarily fund young researchers.
The deal with Ipsen represents the Salk Institute’s first industry-sponsored research agreement – a significant step for a research institute that was founded in the late 1960s.
According to Verma, the $2.5 million annual agreement with Ipsen is ”not a major boost” for Salk. “But any new funds that come in are a boost, and particularly something like this, which is devoted to understanding basic science. It is not a major change in our policy.”
According to the Association of University Technology Manager’s 2006 licensing activity survey, the Salk Institute spent about $79 million on research in fiscal year 2006 and $234 million for the three years ended 2006.
Salk does appear to have taken care to craft an agreement that would allow participating faculty maximum flexibility in what research they pursue.
“If I wanted to go to Amgen, Genentech, or Pfizer tomorrow and say, ‘I would like you to give me $100,000 to do this thing,’ they would most likely say yes, but in return, we would have to give them what we’re doing,” Verma said.
“There is no mission at Salk to do translational research, but there is no injunction either that says you can’t do it.”
The $750,000 per year in targeted research grants is the only program component that is similar to such an arrangement. “The rest of it is that we are hoping in the long run that [Ipsen] will see that the quality of the science at Salk is very good, and that if they want to expand their scientific horizons to be aware of what is exciting in biology, then that is a good thing for them,” Verma said.
In a statement, Ipsen said that the agreement with Salk “seeks balance between secured rights for limited fields with access to knowledge and opportunities in fundamental physio-pathological processes. Ipsen will gain critical access to novel therapeutic targets, an increasingly valuable asset for drug discovery.”
Verma said that he believes that the benefit to the French pharma, beyond possible innovations that result from targeted research, lies primarily in maintaining a strong relationship with the institute.
Verma said that the relationship between Ipsen and the Salk Institute goes back many years. For example, Ipsen maintains a non-profit foundation that supports seminars, meetings, and other events at the institute. In addition, Salk professor and current interim president Roger Guillemin discovered somatostatin, the active principle of Somatuline, which was the first Ipsen drug to be available in the US.
To be sure, $2.5 million per year is a relatively small price to pay to maintain such ties for a company that last year spent about €178.3 million ($264.5 million) on R&D and brought in approximately €945.3 million in revenues.
“Future collaborative efforts might come out of this, and [Ipsen] might … have a bit of an edge in the Salk Institute because they know us,” Verma said. “And, there is the possibility for them to [work with] our postdoctoral fellows and such, and say, ‘Gee, this is a smart guy. Maybe he wants to work for us.’ I think it’s more in that spirit.”
Despite the new program’s emphasis on basic research, the Ipsen Life Sciences Program will likely put a charge into Salk’s technology commercialization efforts if only because of the advanced work that is expected to be done under the targeted research grants. In a statement, Ipsen also said that the core research grants are intended to “fund the exploration of advanced scientific concepts.”
Verma said that he thinks the Salk Institute is interested in beefing up its tech-transfer activity, but has not overly emphasized technology commercialization activities to its faculty.
“Unlike some other institutions where there is more translational research, the mission at Salk is purely to do basic science,” Verma said. “So there is no mission at Salk to do translational research, but there is no injunction either that says you can’t do it. It is totally individually driven. But I sense that in the last five to 10 years, people have become more sensitive to the issue of patents than they used to be.”
As such, the Salk Institute, like many other US universities and non-profit research institutions, will likely be adding employees and specific expertise to its office of technology management over the coming years to keep up with the natural influx of invention disclosures.
“Salk has started over 20 biotech companies, so there are faculty that are aware of it,” Verma said. “But there are younger faculty who are less aware of it, so the OTM is perfectly happy to advise them.”
According to the AUTM survey, Salk Institute executed 22 licenses and options for its technologies in 2006, and brought in around $4.3 million in licensing revenue, about the same as in 2005 and 2004.
“But there is not even a hint of pressure where people are telling them that they’ve got to do specific things,” he added. “They do advise them by telling them, ‘when you finish your discussion of a research paper, don’t go and write it and say that this technology can be used for this, this, and this, until you have told us.’ That doesn’t mean people take that advice.”