By Kevin Davies
August 1, 2008 | Bio-IT World | One of the more intriguing pharma deals in recent months is the formation of Enlight Biosciences, which is being jointly funded by three big pharma companies – Eli Lilly, Pfizer and Merck – and PureTech Ventures to the tune of $39 million. The focus is on pre-competitive technology innovation, an unusual if not unique strategy for pharma companies starving for ways to invigorate their drug pipelines and develop and deliver safer, more effective drugs.
Reid Leonard, executive director of external research and licensing for Merck Research Laboratories in Boston, was one of the lead architects in securing Merck’s participation with Enlight. He spoke to Kevin Davies about Enlight’s formation and goals, and its broader significance for the biopharma industry.
Bio-IT World: Reid, what is Enlight Biosciences?
Leonard: Enlight Biosciences is a company with independent management and a Board that was established by PureTech Ventures. Merck, along with the two other pharma partners [Pfizer and Eli Lilly] are investors in the company. We have a role as strategic advisors to the selection of projects for Enlight, but we’re not responsible for sourcing those projects. The Enlight team is out scanning the academic technology space to identify programs within large areas that they’ve identified with our cooperation, as being areas where novel technology development could be of commercial interest, especially to pharma partners.
The concept is that by getting the participation of the pharma companies early in the game, in terms of [getting these] ideas for technology development, and then importantly providing the partners with early access to the technology during its development, they hope to come up with technologies that best fit the needs of the industry. So they have the ongoing voice of the customer, plus they have access to technical opinions and expertise from the partners to help guide the development of the technologies.
Who conceived the idea of Enlight?
The concept for Enlight was developed by PureTech, but Merck was involved in the very early stages. There are several senior partners at PureTech who have connections to Merck. So we have an excellent relationship with PureTech. This is an idea they brought to us and we embraced enthusiastically a couple of years ago, and have been talking about for quite some time. As they were developing the business model, they would bring the concept back to us as a refresh and we were involved in working with them in setting up what the major areas of focus might be. Then they’ve gone out to other partners, and through a consensus process, they’ve reached the current state where they have three partners.
How unique is this precompetitive partnership in pharma?
I think it is very unique. I can’t personally think of another example, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one, of a situation like this. Because it’s not a consortium—Merck and other pharmas do join consortia in different areas—but the idea of starting a for-profit enterprise with pharma companies as the sole limited partners or investors is unique as far as I’m aware.
Why share these potential technological innovations with other pharma competitors?
That’s really the core operating principal around Enlight. It’s to enable the development of technologies that are of genuine interest to a company like Merck or Pfizer or Lilly, but are not sufficiently enabling in terms of providing an immediate competitive advantage, that we would undertake their development by ourselves. That’s part strategy and partly the fact that technology development per se is not within our core business. We use technology and we definitely want to have a voice determining which technologies become available sooner rather than later, but it’s not our business to independently fund new imaging technologies. Because they’re early stage, they remain risky and it would require substantial investment.
Who will be giving the strategic input to Enlight?
Presently Enlight has been dealing with its pharma partners in a radial fashion; I have a counterpart at each company. I’ve been Merck's primary scientific interface with Enlight, and it’s been my job to coordinate input from Merck broadly in terms of our areas of interest. Take the imaging project, for example: as soon as the project was defined around a particular technology, I made an introduction for Enlight to the particular scientific and technical experts within Merck to define the desired performance criteria.
Were other pharma companies besides Lilly and Pfizer approached?
Enlight solicited interest from several companies, and my understanding is they still have discussions ongoing with several other potential members, but they wanted to announce the formation of the company with the core members who had signed on and committed to the program to date.
Where is the company going to be based?
The offices of Enlight are co-located with PureTech [in Boston]. The lab research is distributed, and that’s part of the Enlight model. They’re doing work in place with the inventors of the original technology. I don’t know where they plan to consolidate the work on a given technology. It’ll start with a virtual model and become more concrete over time.
What technologies and what area of the pipeline are you focusing on?
They have an advanced program in non-invasive imaging and medical imaging, which Enlight has itself already spun into another company, called Endra. Then they have earlier stage efforts going on around biologics, technologies for drug delivery and technologies around the broader area of biomarker discovery…
The goal is to bring forward a small number of projects each year consistent with the ability of the Enlight management team to pay attention to the programs. It’s our expectation that the areas of interest will migrate according to the interests of the pharma partners. That’s certainly a key driver to our participation and interest.
Doesn’t Merck already place a premium on innovation? Is this a tacit admission that there’s a lot more to do to match Merck’s past success?
This Enlight endeavor is just one more example of the general migration Merck has made in the past 5-6 years in becoming a truly outwardly directed company. The goal is still leveraging Merck’s internal technical excellence in order to identity and work with people outside who are on the cutting edge of their particular area of investigation. We would never presume to be able to cover the scope and depth of innovation that’s occurring outside our walls. So we’re trying to take a very focused and strategic approach to which areas make most sense for us to do ourselves, and which areas to do with other people. Enlight is just one more opportunity for us to leverage other people’s innovations, especially in a space where the activities fall outside our core business.
How does Enlight intend to make money?
The business model for Enlight is specifically to develop technologies or instrumentation that can be commercialized for which the pharmaceutical industry is ideally the customer base. The idea for Enlight is there is money to be made in those sorts of technologies, but there’s relatively little interest from the conventional venture investing community to get those projects off the ground because, compared to a medical device or a therapeutic entity, they’re less attractive.
How will you know if this effort has been a success?
If there are technologies that come out of the Enlight process that result in an instrument that we can purchase or a technology that we can bring into our own labs to accelerate our drug discovery process and make better decisions on go/no-go projects. That will be a success for us.
We anticipate that the areas of focus will change over time. Obviously Enlight is trying to focus their activity on [technology] areas where the technology has matured to a point where it’s worth investing. There may certainly be areas that may not be quite ready yet, but in five years, will end up being candidates.