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Pharmas, VCs Increasingly Seek Academic Platform Tech, R&D Deals to Fill Pipelines

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SAN DIEGO – Biopharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists in recent years have increased the rate at which they license “platform” technologies from universities, non-profit research institutes, and smaller biotechnology companies, a panel of tech-transfer experts said at a conference held here last week.
 
In addition, some drug developers have recently been forming more broad-based drug-discovery partnerships with academic institutions and non-profit research institutes.
 
During an industry trends workshop at the Association of University Technology Managers meeting held here last week, panelists said that both strategies can help larger biopharmas continue to tap into university life-sciences research to generate new products while mitigating the risk typically associated with licensing such early-stage technologies.
 
The panelists also said that the developing trend is a marked change over past tech-transfer deals, which tended to revolve around one or a few promising small-molecule compounds.
 
Following the meeting, Scott Minick, managing director for ARCH Venture Partners, told BTW that “the pendulum kind of swung from platforms to products, and I think it’s coming back to platforms to some degree. I wouldn’t tell you people are abandoning products, but I think there is more balance than there was a few years ago.”
 
Increasingly, small-molecule discoveries are too early stage and high-risk for large and even medium-sized biopharma companies to license, the panelists said. However, small molecules become much more attractive if they are linked to a clearly defined and patent-protected method or pathway by which the molecules work or can be discovered.
 
“Early-stage alliances are a shrinking percentage of all deals in the past five years,” said Mark Edwards, managing director of San Francisco Bay Area-based biotech business consulting firm Recombinant Capital, said at AUTM. “We’ve seen an increase in mid-stage deals, where a compound is approaching clinical trials, but that has been at the expense of early-stage deals.”
 
However, one of the biggest upticks has been in the area of drug platform technologies, such as RNAi, he added. “Big technology-platform deals are being struck on both a ‘standalone’ and ‘anchor compound’ basis” in which drug makers choose either to license discovery platforms on their own or bundled with one more compounds that are based on that platform, Edwards said.
 
Panelist Lita Nelsen, director of the technology licensing office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that companies are more frequently approaching MIT to see “what technologies it has sitting around,” and asking to see platform-based technologies instead of individual early-stage small molecules or even more advanced drug leads.
 
“When I started hearing this, I almost fell over,” Nelsen said. “It’s a complete 180[-degree turn] from four or so years ago.”
 

“The pendulum kind of swung from platforms to products, and I think it’s coming back to platforms to some degree. I wouldn’t tell you people are abandoning products, but I think there is more balance than there was a few years ago.”

Nelsen also said that there has been a noticeable increase in the number of VCs seeking to fund early-stage university spinouts based on drug platforms developed at MIT.
 
One of those VCs, ARCH Venture Partners, has funded multiple startups based on research conducted at the institute, most recently Bind Biosciences, which is developing targeted nanoparticles for therapeutic use.
 
According to Minick, ARCH is more likely to fund a university spinout if it is based on a platform technology. He said that ARCH has continued to favor investing in platform technologies over the last several years, even as others shied away for a period of time.
 
“We continue to believe that platforms give you a better, more attractive investment premise,” said Minick. “Yes, they do take longer, but if you understand that pathway, you can do some things to attempt to accelerate those, to accelerate the time from a target to a drug candidate.”
 
In addition, the AUTM panelists said that many larger pharmaceutical companies — which have traditionally avoided licensing most types of technologies directly from academic entities — have become more interested in forging broad-based discovery partnerships with universities and non-profits to exploit platform technologies that can identify promising drug leads.
 
Merck has been one of the busier companies in this respect, having established multi-million-dollar drug-discovery partnerships in recent years with San Francisco’s Gladstone Institute to develop drugs directed at the ApoE pathway in cells; with Harvard to identify inhibitors of the visual cycle for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration; with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to tackle cancer genomics; and with the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in the area of personalized medicine.
 
AUTM panelist Greg Wiederrecht, vice president and head of external scientific affairs, worldwide licensing, and external research for Merck, said that in general, some of the aspects Merck looks for in platform technologies include novel, robust methods to identify and validate targets; formulation and delivery technologies; improved manufacturing methods for chemicals or biologics; and new therapeutic modalities.
 
Wiederrecht also mentioned “automation at all levels, and data management, interrogation, and sharing” as examples of choice platform technologies.
 
RNAi is a recent example of a platform technology that Merck and other pharmas are more interested in partnering with academic entities and early-stage biotech companies to develop, Wiederrecht said, adding that it is a technology that “has the potential to change the game.”
 
Platform technologies besides RNAi of high interest to Merck include imaging technologies, such as those used in PET, SPECT, CT, and MRI screening, as well as optical reporters of any kind; biologics, such as platforms for identifying and generating monoclonal antibodies and aptamers; delivery systems, especially for biologics like RNAi and viral vectors; and oral, IV, and inhalation drug-delivery systems.
 
In addition, big pharma has recently taken a shine to working with university startup companies at the very earliest stages to help encourage collaborative development of potential drug leads or platform technologies.
 
The two most prominent examples in the last year include Biogen-Idec and Pfizer, both of which established in-house incubators to nurture university-based startup companies with the hope of garnering a return on their investment in the form of new tools to aid drug discovery and development (see BTW, 5/7/2007).
 
ARCH’s Minick said that a “platform” technology to his firm is one that “has big market opportunities, the potential to generate multiple products from the platform, and are based on the top science and scientists in the field.”
 
Such technologies, he added, are not so easy to find floating around universities and non-profit research institutes.
 
“We’ve learned that there is a certain skill set to track the science going on at universities, to spin it out, and to build companies around it,” said Minick. “It’s not like … you can just turn on the spigot and think you’ll find the best of platforms at universities.
 

“The more time you spend in that part of the world, and the better you get to know the people and the science, the more opportunities you have to find the best and develop it in the best way,” Minick added.

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