The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a curveball at the global economy, and the biopharma industry is no exception. Companies are scrambling to develop tests, treatments and vaccines for the disease, while making sure not to neglect their pipelines. We caught up with Ioannis Sapountzis, Boehringer Ingelheim’s global head of business development and licensing, to see how the German pharma is handling this.
“We at Boehringer started going into a bit of a crisis mode,” Sapountzis told Fierce Biotech with a laugh. That involved figuring out how to sustain production of its marketed meds, asking itself how it could contribute to the fight against COVID-19 and continuing to build its R&D pipeline through partnerships and acquisitions.
Though it markets animal vaccines, Boehringer doesn’t have a human vaccines unit, and so it's contributing its expertise in antibody and small molecule development to a consortium of academic and industry players convened by the EU’s Innovative Medicines Initiative.
As for its growing its R&D pipeline, the company has been as active as ever, inking several deals in the first half of 2020, including the acquisitions of Northern Biologics and its immuno-oncology work and an anti-IL-11 antibody platform from Singapore’s Enleofen.
In the short term, the pandemic hasn’t really affected Boehringer’s deal-making, Sapountzis said, adding that some of the deals it struck in 2020 were identified before the COVID-19 came along, which “made it easier, in a way.” Going forward, the loss of in-person conferences where companies, scientists and doctors rub shoulders could change the way industry players find new partners.
“BIO has now turned into a virtual meeting … ASCO created a lot of data, but it was all virtual. It’s the same for AACR,” Sapountzis said. “Those meetings that we sometimes use to also initiate discussions with entrepreneurs, academic institutes and clinicians to see how to drive innovation forward—that’s a bit of a missing piece.”
But going virtual hasn’t been all bad. Boehringer runs a program called Grass Roots, which seeks to connect early-stage companies with each other, as well as with leaders from Boehringer and its partners. It holds “Office Hours” events in various cities—including Boston, New York and San Diego—to give startups access to tools, Boehringer’s “knowledge, knowhow and coaching to help ideas grow.”
“One company that attended Office Hours in Vienna is based in Sicily. While in the previous setup, they’d maybe take a long flight to Vienna, it was just a mouse click to getting to BI,” Sapountzis said. “That’s one of the changes from this pandemic that’s not so bad.”
For the time being, the company is going full steam ahead on seeking more partnerships in the latter half of the year. Sapountzis is encouraged by the financing rounds and IPOs the industry has seen since the pandemic started.
“It’s a great sign, it’s great for patients in need that innovation continues to be funded,” he said.
But if the pandemic drags on for much longer, more change will come.
“Maybe there will be a need for earlier partnering because companies may not have such easy access to a worldwide supply chain anymore. Maybe executing clinical studies will become a little bit more challenging if we don’t have the infrastructure,” he said. “All of this, we don’t know, but I’m sure we will find the right response to this … I don’t think you can stop us advancing the ideas that we want. We just need to learn a different way to do it.”