Biotech VCs, Big Pharma stepping outside the comfort zone

BARCELONA - On Monday evening I moderated a panel on corporate venture financing at BIO-Europe Spring, joined by Roel Bulthuis, the head of Merck Serono Ventures, Anja (it's pronounced Anya) König, managing director of Novartis Venture Fund, Patrick Krol, a partner with Aescap and Malcolm Weir, the CEO at Heptares. I'd spoken with Weir before about his U.K. biotech company and knew that he and König went back. Novartis is an investor in Heptares, which we featured last year as a Fierce 15 company.

König's fund has a history of getting in early at a developer. And as she emphatically hammered home during the rather informal hour-long exchange about corporate VC goals and objectives, Novartis' venture arm is on the lookout for game-changing technologies. An incremental, short-yardage health gain isn't the objective.

Over the last year, König's longstanding interest in the cutting-edge has become an increasingly common feature in the drug development scene. As Big Pharma companies apply shock therapy to their R&D empires, it's clear that the top CEOs are focused on getting their organizations to think more like biotech organizations. If they can't become more efficient at development and shed some of the bureaucracy that has grown around their empires even as they grow bolder in their scientific objectives, then they won't be nimble enough to get out from under the avalanche of patent expirations that is tumbling their way. That process won't ever be pretty, but it is understandable.

That's a lesson, though, that more biotech execs need to take to heart as well. Safety is great. Low risk is great--if you can find it, and I'm not sure you can. But if you aren't trying to change the game of health, it's going to be very difficult to find a licensing partner when you need one. Getting backing from a venture group that thinks that way is the best kind of validation you can hope for as you're going into the clinic.

Thanks to everyone on the panel for a lively discussion. And we appreciated a big, receptive audience. Moving from the world of virtual, online news production to the world of face-to-face communication helps make simple truths come alive. - John Carroll twitter | email

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