Three new rules for biopharma collaborations

Last week I moderated a panel called "The New Rules of Partnerships and Collaborations" at the Convergence East conference on Cape Cod, and the experience gave me a chance to probe some of the biopharma industry's top dealmakers about their preferences and prejudices going into talks with other companies. I've decided to write down three key observations or "rules" that emerged during the panel and other notes from the Convergence meeting.

1. Competition is heating up for compelling clinical-stage assets--and not just those in Phase III trials. Take Biogen Idec's ($BIIB) recent buyout of Stromedix for its Phase II-ready antibody STX-100 for combating fibrosis. Apparently, Pfizer ($PFE) was interested in buying the asset, Jose-Carlos Gutierrez-Ramos, senior vice president of biotherapeutics R&D at the drug giant, revealed during the panel. Gutierrez-Ramos and Steven Holtzman, Biogen's chief dealmaker (who obviously won the Stromedix deal), traded some jabs about why Biogen prevailed. The bottom line: Stromedix had options. 

2. Which partners are most coveted among biotechs? At least in oncology, Celgene ($CELG) appears to be winning over collaborators. In one off-the-record conversation, two heads of business development told me that biotechs are warming up to the flexibility and creativity of the Summit, NJ-based drugmaker in deals. Celgene has been quite active with the recent buyout of Avila Therapeutics, partnership deal with Epizyme and ongoing tie-up with Agios Pharmaceuticals. Yet I wonder whether sharp biotech dealmakers in Cambridge, MA, are getting the best of Celgene at the negotiating table.

For instance, one of my panelists, Anna Protopapas, executive vice president of global business development at Takeda Pharmaceutical, didn't think that her company would have bought Avila Therapeutics under the terms that Celgene did early this year. Protopapas noted that the key asset in the deal, Avila's Phase I Btk inhibitor, is a third-in-class compound, and first-in-class cancer drugs have an edge because of the difficulty that later drugs in the same class face in besting them. Did Celgene--which shelled out $350 million upfront and promised up to $575 million more in milestones--overpay for Avila?

3. Big Pharma can be your friend. Sure, we know about the monumental problems large drugmakers face from expiring patents on key drugs and assaults on their old business models. And, yes, drugmakers are entertaining all kinds of diverse deal structures with biotech companies to soften the blow. Yet every week or so we learn of another strategy drugmakers are using to efficiently develop products. Pfizer's Gutierrez-Ramos shared one with me (though it wasn't covered during the panel). He's now looking for biotech partners that are interested in taking over development of drugs from Pfizer's pipeline. He's offering the compounds for free and willing to share in the success of the programs down the line.

Of course, Pfizer's strategy here builds on the Center for Therapeutic Innovation, which the drug giant expanded last year through several collaborations with academic groups, which work with CTI on translational research. Like CTI, externalizing clinical development of Pfizer compounds at biotech companies, including venture-backed startups, lets the drug giant tap expertise that doesn't reside under its own roof.

"I think the misperception is that," outside of large buyouts and tiny deals, "Pfizer is not a great partner to work with because, due to the big acquisitions, we are product-driven [and] that the perception out there is that we just want products," Gutierrez-Ramos said. "And what we have been trying to re-prove over the last two years is that the new Pfizer is not like that." -- Ryan McBride (Email | Twitter)