Magazine Article | June 7, 2017

Bridging The Gap Between Academia, Small Biotechs, And Industry

Source: Life Science Leader

By Suzanne Elvidge, Contributing Writer
Follow Me On Twitter @suzannewriter

Academia and biotech have long been sources of innovation for the pharmaceutical industry, and this is increasingly important for Big Pharmas that want to prop up flagging pipelines or boost particular areas of focus. Some of the large pharma companies have started to reach out to academia through formal programs, such as GSK’s Discovery Partnerships with Academia (DPAc), or Merck’s support of the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr). However, academia, research institutions, and small biotechs can find it challenging to reach back the other way and get their voices heard by pharma companies and bigger biotechs.

The role that biotech and academia can play in bridging the gap was discussed at the BIOPROSP_17 8th International Conference on Marine Biotechnology, held in Tromsø, Norway, in March 2017.

Academic researchers have an excellent track record in being innovative, but getting those innovations to market has proved difficult, leaving promising potential drugs languishing in the so-called valley of death. Also described as the translation gap, this comprises the stages between drug discovery when researchers have an interesting candidate on the bench and efficacy trials at Phase 2 or Phase 3 where a drug’s value can be proven.

According to Asbjørn Lilletun, Norinnova Technology Transfer, Norway, one of the difficulties faced is the difference in approach to research. “Innovation in academia is not the same as in business. There needs to be a balance between the open nature of research in academia and the intellectual protection needed in the pharma industry — and between the long-term nature of academic research and the need for speed in industry.”

To succeed in creating projects that attract the attention of pharma industry business development teams, universities and academic researchers need to be aware of the market needs. Technology transfer offices can play a role here by providing a more commercial mindset and giving access to networks, funding, and potential partners. An example of success is MARBIONC — Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina — which is based at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) and discovers, develops, and markets new products and technologies derived from the sea.

“MARBIONC was created to stimulate economic development and marine biotech in North Carolina,” said Andrea Bourdelais, research associate professor at the Center for Marine Science at UNCW. “A slice of the money from any marketed products goes back to the labs.”

The MARBIONC group identifies the markets to ensure that any products created meet specific needs, and then the group creates teams of people from science, business, and academia supported with a preexisting infrastructure. As an example, Silurian Pharmaceuticals licensed brevenal, a potential treatment for cystic fibrosis, from MARBIONC.

Creating partnerships is important for the future of research in academia, as funding is increasingly dependent on evidence of collaboration. It is important, however, that academic researchers remember that they need to bring value to the partnership and not just create a partnership in order to get a grant.

“Companies and universities need to focus on quality in research, and this is helped by long-term partnerships supported by an increased focus on open innovation,” says Lilletun.

"There needs to be a balance between the open nature of research in academia and the intellectual protection needed in the pharma industry."

Asbjørn Lilletun
Norinnova Technology Transfer Norway

It’s not just academic research organizations that find the gap between discovery and the clinic a challenge; this can be a difficult step for startup companies, too. Catapult Life Science, through its Life Science Pilot, is using networking to create a resource pool for smaller companies to help them take the next step.

“There is a gap between early-stage R&D in universities, biopharma clusters, and research parks and the late-stage development and commercialization by bigger companies,” said Astrid Myrseth, CEO at Catapult Life Science, Norway.

The Life Science Pilot network is linked with the newly established and Oslo-based The Life Science Cluster (TLSC), which is a service center that provides access to equipment, infrastructure, and industry experience. The network aims to connect people with skills from a common resource pool.

Njorth Bio, based in Tromsø in Norway, also focuses on using shared resources to commercialize innovative bio-based ideas, but takes a rather different approach, as Jessica Green, business developer, explains. “We work with researchers who have a good idea, but their research institution or technology transfer office is not interested.”

Njorth Bio’s business model is similar to that of a technology transfer office, but rather than launching a company, Njorth Bio licenses the idea and wraps it into one of its three existing daughter companies, Njorth Bio_boost, Njorth Bio_trim or Njorth Bio_cure, depending on the area, and provides access to a pool of shared resources. This reduces risk for the inventor and cuts costs because the infrastructure already exists.

As Erik Hjelvin, medical director, Pfizer, Norway, explained at BIOPROSP_17: “R&D efficiency is falling despite tremendous increases in research. It takes between 5,000 and 10,000 compounds in drug discovery to create one drug, and 75 percent of the cost of a new drug is based on the failures.”

Pfizer’s solution to this challenge is through partnerships, including those with Big Pharma, biotech, disease foundations, and academic partnerships. As well as bringing along development capabilities for its partners, Pfizer also can provide funding through its venture capital arm, Pfizer Venture Investments. However, Pfizer and other pharma companies have to come into partnerships with academia and startups with specific demands and expectations.

“We ask that our potential partners understand our focus areas and have a common strategic interest and an interest in cooperation. They should be able to provide us with a defined contact person who has the authority to discuss and disclose an up-to-date nonconfidential presentation,” says Hjelvin.

A solid agreement is a crucial part of a partnership, as Theresa Comiskey Olsen, a partner at Langseth Lawyers, Norway, explained at BIOPROSP_17. “The draft agreement needs to balance benefit and risk and should be a win-win for both parties,” she said.

To create a good agreement, the parties need to establish trust and should communicate what is important and why up front. This includes an awareness of the benefits and questions of exclusivity, semi-exclusivity, and nonexclusivity. For example, they should know:

  • Is there a right to sublicense, or would rights return to the technology owner?
  • If the licensee makes improvements to the invention, will these have to be licensed back?

The intellectual property rights also need to be considered, such as patents, knowhow, and field of use, including any improvements and new developments. “When creating an agreement, both parties need to be aware of the details, and plan ahead for any likelihoods,” said Comiskey Olsen.