For real R&D innovation, blur the lines between pharma and academia: Panel

STRASBOURG, France--Collaborating with academia has been de rigueur in the pharma world for years, but it's a different game these days. Recognizing that scientists on both sides of the divide can't be distant neighbors anymore, drugmakers and academics are invading each other's personal space, even working side-by-side in the same labs. They're learning unexpected things about their counterparts. And they're coming to terms with the inherent conflict between research for curiosity's sake and research for the market.

That's the word from the experts in the trenches, who discussed the nexus between pharma and academia at the BioFit conference in Strasbourg, France, this week. The panel, moderated by FierceBiotech editor John Carroll, included a mix of Big Pharma and top research institutions as well as a CRO exec.

Sanofi's Jochen Maas

At Sanofi ($SNY), the approach to collaboration has shifted dramatically, said Jochen Maas, who heads up the company's R&D hub in Frankfurt, Germany. Once upon a time, Sanofi scientists and their academic counterparts would meet every few months to share data and ideas. The company first experimented with sending its people into the academy and teaching hospitals, and inviting academic researchers into its labs for short periods. Then, the visits became long-term, with Sanofi's people working alongside their academic partners.

Now, it's about creating projects in common, from the start, and then working on that project together in the same place. When Maas goes into those labs, he says, "I'm not able to distinguish whether one is a Sanofi scientists or an external scientist."

Proximity is the watchword at Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), too, and the team from J&J's Innovation Center in London--one of four worldwide--spends "considerable time" in locations across Europe working with its current partners and seeking out new ones.

J&J's Kurt Hertogs

"Ideas are generated everywhere," said Kurt Hertogs, who is one of the platform innovation and incubation strategy leaders at that J&J Innovation Center. Being "close and involved" is the way to tap those ideas, he added, and bring them to fruition. "We are in the midst of a transition from the old way of doing things," he noted, "with everyone in their own silos, to a continuum with different partners and stakeholders at each stage."

But pharma's respect for those new ideas and eagerness to work with academia doesn't mean all is rosy for these collaborators. Frustration is still a common emotion, and points of view can be 180 degrees apart. For instance, an industry perspective that innovation isn't innovation unless it's put to use--i.e., taken to market--would be anathema to many academics, according to Ivan Baines, COO at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany.

"At Planck we try to find the best brains and give them the freedom to pursue their curiosity," Baines said. "Basically many leading academics don't do well in structured programs."

But, he said, plenty of academics are inspired by the desire to bring the benefits of their research to patients, "and they would agree that innovation, to be innovative, has to be put to use. Other academics would say, to be innovative, we must not be constrained by specific purpose but must have the freedom to pursue curiosity … and [that is where] real insight can be found."

Maas agreed that there are fundamental differences in perspective on either side of these collaborations, but he sees that changing. "In academia, the currency is publications and papers, and in industry, it is patents and products," Maas said. "The two worlds are approaching each other. In industry, to find partners, we have to be visible, and to be visible in the scientific community, we have to publish.

"On the other hand, academia is more interested now in patents and products. The option to get fees and royalties in the end is an interesting source of money for the university."

Baines said the watchwords of pharma collaboration can in themselves be frustrating for academics: Partnerships are about time, money, and keeping it quiet--which means academics have to work within a timeline and a budget, and can't publish or talk about their discoveries. Plus, some basic scientists believe that, as soon as the industry side of the collaboration starts to guide research, "it becomes compromised and lack of objectivity may harm the value."

However, he said, some projects these days are best guided by those closer to the patient--pharma--because guidance is essential to making sense of the deluge of scientific data that now emerges from research labs.

"I would call it enriched, when you start to guide something," Hertogs contended. Otherwise, it's still like working in the old silos, he said. But at the same time, "You can't apply really high-quality standards from the start because you'd strangle the idea. People need freedom to think, to experiment. The best way to do this is to engage in dialogue and learn from each other."

The panelists said they remain optimistic about their collaborative efforts, regardless of the challenges. "Our worlds are approaching each other more and more," Maas said, and as the results of these collaborations begin to hit the market, that will give the very idea a boost. And Hertogs believes that global trends will make collaborations an even more important part of working in the pharma business: "Now, with the internet, how information flows, how this generation moves across the globe, with the knowledge-driven economy, you'll see the boundaries between institutions blur even more." -- Tracy Staton (email | Twitter)