Digital RESI “Europe” Recap: Virtual Big Pharma Panelists Share Their Insights

23 Apr

By Claire Jeong, Vice President of Investor Research, Asia BD, LSN


As many readers know, LSN organized its inaugural digital RESI “Europe” conference last month. RESI had a digital agenda in place, which included various panels & workshops, Innovation Challenge finalists, and Featured Company Pitch Sessions. One of the panels LSN organized was “Big Pharma”, a popular session that is included at almost every RESI conference.

Large pharmaceuticals continue to play a key role in the early-stage biotech ecosystem by actively scouting and fostering external innovation, orchestrating various types of partnership models to work with novel science. Last year, there were notable partnerships such as Gilead’s deal with Goldfinch Bio for their kidney disease pipeline, or Roche’s deal with Skyhawk Therapeutics for developing small molecule therapies that modulate RNA splicing, in CNS and oncology. For an emerging startup, the implications of partnering with global pharma are tremendous and they are always highly sought after at RESI.

So how can people successfully engage with global, large pharmaceutical groups? For many companies, the entire process may seem daunting. The Big Pharma panel organized at the last RESI covered perspectives of various organizations, represented by the following panelists:

  • Murali Gopalakrishnan, Sr. Director, Head Search & Evaluation Neuroscience, AbbVie (Moderator)
  • Arpita Maiti, Executive Director & Global Head, Inflammation & Immunology, ES&I, Pfizer
  • Chris Church, Manager, Search & Evaluation, CVRM, AstraZeneca
  • Mark Day, VP Research & Emerging Sciences, Otsuka Pharmaceuticals
  • Elena Ritsou, Global Head Oncology Business Development, Ipsen S.A.

Some key takeaways:

Having the whole package – great science, management team, supporting materials. All groups really are open to companies of all stages of development, as long as the science they are working on is compelling. Most of the represented groups are open to considering various types of modalities, while Ipsen has more focused interests, mainly focusing on small molecule therapeutics. Some groups delved into more specific technology areas of interest, such as Pfizer’s expertise and research into nanoparticles and AstraZeneca’s interest in technologies that increase oral bioavailability of peptides.

As long as the company is supported by a clear and well-organized pitch deck and other supplementary materials, you can expect a positive initial response. It is also important to note that pharmaceuticals want to work with management teams who are willing to listen and adapt to their constructive feedback, meeting suggested timelines, etc.

Identify the right people to reach out to. Business units are organized based on therapeutic area. Colleagues who are responsible for business development and external research/collaboration attend many partnering conferences beyond BIO and JPM. Of course, pharma also regularly participate in major scientific conferences such as AACR, so it is not difficult to find a representative from a pharma you are seeking to engage. Main communication is done through e-mail, so you can e-mail a contact you have recently met at a networking event or conference, or start a new outreach by navigating through the pharma’s partnering webpage.

Try to identify the right person to contact, instead of reaching out to the CEO or key senior executives from the start (unfortunately, this seems to happen more often than it should). Even if you do reach out them, the opportunity will trickle down to the appropriate business unit, not only making this an inefficient process for everyone involved but also leaving a bad impression. Arpita from Pfizer mentioned that it would take 1-2 weeks to get back, which sounds like a standard timeline for others as well.

Understanding creative partnership & collaboration models. Global pharmaceuticals are all taking novel approaches to identify and support early-stage technologies, and they value the importance of open collaboration. It would be a good idea to properly research into the big pharma partners with whom you are most keen to establish better connections. Many pharmaceuticals have established corporate venture funds to invest in technologies that have synergies with the pharma’s current R&D pipeline. On this panel, every pharma has their own venture funding platform with the exception of AstraZeneca. Other approaches can include partnering with existing assets in pharma’s platform and engaging in a research collaboration or non-dilutive funding-type of deal, option-type agreements, etc. An example is Pfizer’s Centers for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI), through which Pfizer collaborates with investigators and academia to accelerate promising research.

So when is an opportunity “too early”? There is no absolutely right answer to this question, as people have different perspectives in evaluating opportunities. But, most can agree on the fact that when an early-stage opportunity is dismissed and comes back later when there has been further clinical development, the deal will become more expensive and complicated to negotiate. Mark from Otsuka noted that simply telling companies to come back when they have proof of concept or better data is just an easy way out. If he identifies a compelling opportunity, he will find someone else in the company who could share the excitement and build a case. Elena from Ipsen mentioned that, as they have ceased in-house research in oncology and rare disease, they tend to partner with and have the capacity to engage at the candidate development stage. They don’t shy away from the earliest stage opportunities, engaging in option-type agreements and supporting companies during this period to get them to candidate development stage and beyond (i.e. in-licensing).

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