VANCOUVER, BC – The University of British Columbia is spearheading a pair of initiatives to facilitate life sciences-related technology commercialization at universities in both British Columbia and the West coast of the US, program officials told attendees at the Licensing Executives Society annual meeting held here last week.
Representatives from the initiatives discussed the programs during a roundtable session at the LES meeting entitled “Novel approaches to difficult issues in technology transfer.” The session was chaired by Angus Livingstone, managing director of the university industrial liaison office at UBC.
According to Livingstone, the BC region, like much of the rest of Canada and the US, has recently seen the “collapse of early-stage funding” for university technologies, making it extremely difficult to create startup companies based on those technologies.
In addition, he said, increasingly “fragmented” intellectual property and “narrow” patents have exacerbated these challenges, making it necessary to seek new models of technology transfer that bring together multiple institutions, academic or otherwise.
As such, UBC recently established the West Coast Licensing Partnership, an unofficial alliance of nine West-coast universities or research institutions: UBC, BC Cancer Agency, University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Oregon Health and Science University, California Institute of Technology, Burnham Institute for Medical Research, Scripps Research Institute, and Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
According to Caroline Bruce, associate director of international business development at UBC’s Industry Liaison Office and founder of the WCLP, the alliance chose these institutions for, among other reasons, their willingness to participate, the existence of an “established” tech-transfer office, and their geographical proximity.
In addition, in the case of the Canadian participating institutions, they needed to have a policy of university ownership of IP – a standard in the US due to Bayh-Dole guidelines, but something that differs among Canadian institutions.
Bruce said that in talking with various tech-transfer officials at these institutions as well as other institutions in BC and beyond, she found that all faced similar challenges in increasing the turnover of technologies from bench top to market.
“We found that a lot of these West-coast universities were having problems licensing technologies in general, but especially smaller technologies,” Bruce said.
The WCLP hopes to facilitate this process by bundling smaller technologies that would otherwise go unnoticed or at least unlicensed, the end result being the creation of a portfolio of IP that would be of more substantive value to a potential licensing company or venture capitalist.
Ideally, each bundle would consist of between two and nine technologies from one or more of the WCLP institutions, with one institution deemed the “managing institution” for that specific bundle as outlined in an inter-institutional agreement, Bruce said. The managing institution is the point of contact for any potential licensors of the technology and negotiating the licensing contract.
All participating WCLP institutions have also signed a governing memorandum of understanding that outlines bundling management procedures, shared revenues, and IP management protocols, among other items.
Such a model could benefit potential licensors by producing an initially stronger IP portfolio that is centrally managed rather than scattered among multiple institutions.
One caveat is that the WCLP will insist that all licenses be non-exclusive to guarantee the widest possible dissemination for the technology. An audience member questioned whether potential licensors would be interested in such terms, to which Bruce replied that her experience has shown that industry seems to be more interested in recent years in non-exclusivity.
The WCLP already has one technology bundle in place for animal research models for different aspects of neurological and neurodegenerative disease, for which OHSU has taken the managing role. Bruce said that the WCLP is currently negotiating with at least one undisclosed company for the technology.
The WCLP will next turn its attention to creating a bundle of IP related to biomarkers, which are especially conducive to such a method because “companies are much more interested in owning the rights to 10, 20, 30, or 40 biomarkers as opposed to one or two,” Bruce said. Other areas of future IP bundling will be medical devices and medical imaging technology, she added.
The alliance hopes to have a website up and running by the end of the year, and is currently trying to secure a small amount of funding to hire an intern to work with individual institutions to identify new technology bundles.
Bruce added that the WCLP will consider including other institutions once the website is developed and the first collective license is completed, but stressed that it will very important for the WCLP to identify only like-minded institutions.
Mind the Gap
Another recent initiative at UBC is the Center for Drug Research and Development, an effort to bridge the commercialization gap that exists in university-based drug discovery such programs are often too nascent to attract serious interest from biotech or pharmaceutical companies.
“The BC life sciences industry is very strong, and there is increasing federal expenditure on university life sciences research, but the number of spinout companies and licensing agreements is declining,” Natalie Dakers, CEO of the CDRD, told the LES audience.
“The BC life sciences industry is very strong, and there is increasing federal expenditure on university life sciences research, but the number of spinout companies and licensing agreements is declining.”
As a possible solution to this problem, the CDRD is charged with bridging the gap by conducting research at a slightly later point in the drug-discovery continuum than most university labs are equipped to do. The hope is that research conducted at CDRD will advance drug leads to a point where they are just shy of an investigational new drug application, Dakers said, which should attract more industry interest.
Specifically, CDRD will strive to conduct proof-of-concept work — such as lead optimization, formulation, efficacy testing, and toxicology — to link basic academic work like target validation and screening with typical industry work such as pre-clinical toxicology and clinical trials.
With the help of several scientific founders with extensive drug-discovery experience – together they have combined to develop five approved drugs and establish more than 20 spinout companies in BC, Bruce said – CDRD set up shop as an independent non-profit research institute that is affiliated with several BC area universities and research institutes.
Each of the member institutes has an independent Drug Research Institute on its campus that feeds into the main CDRD program. In addition, CDRD established a commercial arm called Drug Development Inc., or DDI, which is a private company in which each of the member institutions is a shareholder.
DDI then licenses technology from university labs (not only those that are part of the CDRD), negotiates a licensing deal just as any other company would, and attempts to further develop the IP to be sold or licensed to a larger company or VC. Therefore, CDRD does not control, own, or license any IP from the project, but all profits from DDI flow back to fund CDRD research.
“It was a challenge to sort out the legal infrastructure,” Dakers said. “But we wanted to go beyond the walls of UBC only, despite the fact that it does 80 percent of the life sciences research in the region. We have developed what we call a hybrid model that has one foot in industry and the other in academia.”
Dakers added that DDI hopes to hand off a “sophisticated and complete” preclinical data package for a drug candidate that would include data on mechanism of action, drug formulation and delivery, medicinal chemistry, ADME, pharmacokinetic and biodistribution profiles, clinical strategy, and likelihood of clinical success.
To date, the CDRD has gained some early momentum in the form of broad community support from industry, academia, and the provincial government; CAN$25 million ($25.5 million) in funding from the province; CAN$10 million in funding from local biotech firm Angiotech; and 13,000 square feet of committed laboratory space at UBC, Dakers said.
The CDRD estimates that its annual operating budget through 2012 will include approximately CAN$70 million in operating costs, CAN$23 million in facilities costs, and CAN$43 million in major equipment. Until the DDI licensing arm starts generating revenues, CDRD hopes to subsist on a combination of federal and provincial grant money, and foundation and corporate support, Dakers added.