VCs, Big Pharma join forces to tackle market challenges (Page 2)

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PureTech managing partner Daphne Zohar

Monsanto is world's largest provider of crop seeds and, obviously, isn't in the drug business. However, Formela said, Atlas expects that many of the life sciences technologies in which Atlas and Monsanto invest could be used in different ways to develop both agribusiness products and healthcare products, such as new drugs. 

Boston-based Enlight Biosciences, which focuses on core technologies to help advance new healthcare products, is another prime example of a collaborative effort between venture capitalists and Big Pharma. PureTech Ventures of Boston provided the initial staff for Enlight and six large healthcare companies--including Abbott Laboratories ($ABT), Lilly, Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), Merck ($MRK), Novartis ($NVS) and Pfizer ($PFE)--have each committed funding for Enlight and its technology-development projects.   

In January, Enlight announced that it had spun out a new startup called Entrega. The spinoff is working on technologies that would enable oral delivery of biologic drugs that are typically injected into patients, according to the firm. (Bob Langer, the MIT inventor and drug delivery expert, is Entrega's top scientific adviser). Oral delivery of biologics offers new business opportunities for drug companies that now sell injected versions of the medicines.

"Ideas are brought to us by the pharmas, as well as generated in brainstorms involving multiple pharma partners and academic experts," Daphne Zohar (pictured), a managing partner of PureTech and Enlight board member, said in an e-mail. "Prior to forming Entrega, we had a full-day workshop with senior (drug) delivery experts from each of our pharma partners plus academic experts like Bob Langer."

Apart from their deals with venture firms, big drug companies are exploring multiple avenues to change their approach to R&D. There's been a spate of deals involving drug companies working directly with academic researchers at prestigious universities and medical centers. In March, for example, Foster City, CA-based drug maker Gilead Sciences ($GILD) and Yale University announced a cancer drug research agreement that could be worth $100 million to Yale over a 10-year period. And in September, French drug giant Sanofi-Aventis ($SNY) paid $33 million upfront in a multi-year research alliance with the Belfer Institute of Applied Cancer Science at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Still, big drug companies are notorious for herding toward business opportunities or strategies and then decamping from them with similar urgency. For instance, Lilly, Pfizer and Novo Nordisk ($NVO) all chased after the inhaled insulin market and then retreated after doctors and patients failed to warm up to inhaled insulin. Yet given all the challenges it faces, Big Pharma might not have a choice about whether to continue seeking external relationships with venture firms or other groups. 

"Pharma needs innovation as much as innovative companies need pharma," PureTech's Zohar said. "It's really a symbiotic relationship."

Further Reading:
Bloomberg's story about Eli Lilly's venture strategy
Forbes' article about Glaxo's strategy to revive its R&D engine

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