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Eli Lilly Takes Key Role in Indiana Proteomics Consortium, New Director Hurrell Says

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In a building adjacent to the technology transfer office at Indiana University, John Hurrell is hoping to create a new kind of proteomics consortium. Unlike its counterpart in Michigan, a multi-university distributed research program funded with money from the state’s tobacco settlement, Hurrel’s Indiana Proteomics Consortium is working directly with big pharma — in the form of Eli Lilly, the fifth largest pharma company in the US.

Hurrell took over July 15 from Rick Ludwig, the interim director who is returning to Lilly to coordinate the company’s internal and external efforts in proteomics, including acting as the liason with the consortium.

While the consortium also includes Indiana and Purdue University, Lilly’s prominent role in the organization could make Hurrell’s job easier in some ways, and perhaps more complicated in others. On the one hand, Lilly’s participation adds a significant boost in funding — the company is ponying up $6 million to fund research groups at the two universities, with Indiana and Purdue each contributing $3 million — but Hurrell will have to coordinate the consortium’s activities with the company’s interests in mind, including pharma’s well-known propensity for keeping a tight leash on intellectual property.

Lilly and its academic partners first announced the creation of the consortium last February [ProteoMonitor 2/18/02], as part of an effort to capitalize on the two universities’ strength in analytical chemistry and build a biotechnology center in central Indiana. The idea for the consortium sprang from discussions between the presidents of Purdue and Indiana University, and Gus Watanabe, Lilly’s executive vice president for science and technology and president of Lilly Research Laboratories, Hurrell told ProteoMonitor.

Lilly’s desire for confidentiality is seemingly already apparent in the consortium’s plans to keeps its research plans under wraps, at least until the end of the year. Earlier this year, with the help of “one of the big three” consulting firms, the consortium identified four technology “gaps” that researchers participating in the consortium hope to address, but Hurrell declined to provide any more details on the research initiatives, other than to say that they run the gamut of what might be considered proteomics.

“We want to allow these programs to go through the ‘proof of principle’ stage, without putting additional pressure on the researchers,” Hurrell said in defense of the consortium’s privacy policy. Intellectual property rights to the technology under development are still being ironed out, Hurrell added. “Right now we’re trying to stay under the radar screen,” except to recruit additional corporate partners as future co-investors and licensees, he said.

In return for helping fund the consortium’s research through “a relatively small bet,” commercial partners will potentially have early access to technology and rights of first refusal on licensing the consortium’s research, Hurrell said. However, because Indiana and Purdue are both state-funded universities, future partners must necessarily have a presence in Indiana.

The consortium’s organizational structure is decentralized, with Hurrell coordinating the efforts of 20 to 25 researchers in six groups distributed evenly across the two member universities. The principal investigators, who were selected based on research proposals submitted to the consortium, engage in research both solely funded by the consortium as well as by other grants, Hurrell said. The consortium has already hired several postdocs to assist the primary investigators, and staff employed by the consortium could have the opportunity to move to positions within startup companies that spin out of the university-based research.

As for its business administration, Hurrell plans to hire an additional staff member to assist in business development, who would share Hurrell’s four- to five-office suite on the Indiana University campus.

Despite the consortium’s secrecy, Hurrell sees working with Lilly as an advantage, and not just for its funding. With Lilly as a captive test site, the consortium can pursue developing novel proteomics technology “with real application value,” Hurrell said. “We want to know what [is] the instrumentation, what are the methods, and how to apply them in the real world.”

—JSM