By Kevin Davies
Sept. 5, 2008 | The headlines surrounding the pharmaceutical industry this summer have made for pretty grim reading. The specter of downsizing swirls around big pharmas such as Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and many others. Drug safety issues have surfaced again with Biogen Idec’s multiple sclerosis drug Tysabri. And the dearth of solid candidates in the pipelines is a key reason why pharmas are offering lavish sums for biotechs such as Genentech and ImClone.
Against this backdrop, the unprecedented model surrounding the creation and mission of Enlight Biosciences stands out a mile. As we report on page 10, Enlight is a technology development company cofounded by Merck, Pfizer, and Eli Lilly. The three pharma partners—one or two others may yet join—have invested in a for-profit company that aims to develop enabling tools and technologies for pharma customers. The founders will enjoy early access to those technologies.
Such precompetitive cooperation—or “co-opetition” as the business press calls it—could become a recurring theme in an industry badly in need of fresh ideas. It’s an idea that has been tried in IT and health care before, although not always successfully. Years ago, several large insurers banded together to form MedUnite, an Internet company to handle health care transactions. It went bust.
The brainchild behind Enlight is Daphne Zohar, a founding partner with PureTech Ventures in Boston. “We focus on the translation of academic innovation,” Zohar told me. Enlight was conceived a couple of years ago, when it was evident that most of the venture capital (VC) world had little interest in investing in new technologies. “[Technology] was outside the clinical therapeutic space,” she says. “But some were potentially transformational, extremely exciting technologies that could really have an impact on the industry.”
While attending a retreat sponsored by a VC firm, she sat through a panel discussion in which speakers bemoaned the lack of funding and incentives for investing in innovation. At lunch, she turned to Mervyn Turner, Merck’s senior VP for licensing and external research, and asked what he thought. Wasn’t he interested in those types of technologies?
Of course we’re interested, Turner replied, we’re very concerned about the trend.
“So what about having pharma work with us directly?” Zohar said. “Then we don’t have to rely on the venture world,” at least not initially. Pfizer and Eli Lilly soon jumped on board, while Zohar worked with PureTech partner (and Enlight’s acting CEO) David Steinberg to nurture the idea. “There’s definite interest from other pharma companies,” says Zohar. A couple more may join, but not too many. “Just from managing relationships, it’s a lot of effort, so we’re probably going to cap it.”
Zohar sums up Enlight’s mission as, “The translation between preclinical, clinical, and point of care.” The company will develop “technologies that will improve productivity by doing one of two things: either giving more information about a drug’s potential efficacy and safety and/or technologies that translate across multiple stages of development, thereby providing really consistent, information which will again potentially lower the failure rate at the later stages.”
Many of the specific technologies are about getting information earlier. Zohar checks off “all sorts of predictive models, imaging technologies, also technologies that can improve the performance of drugs or answer key bottlenecks.” New forms of drug delivery will be another area of interest, such as delivery across the blood-brain barrier or improving the delivery of RNAi constructs.
It seems like a lot of ground to cover, especially as the founders are investing $39 million initially. That’s not chump change, but it’s not overwhelming either. As Derek Lowe wrote in his blog “In the Pipeline”, “Those problems will eat $39 million without even reaching for the salt.”
But Zohar calmly says that it’s manageable. Aided by a stellar board of scientific advisors, led by MIT Nobel laureate Bob Horvitz and featuring world experts in imaging, genomic medicine, and medical devices, not to mention of course its founding pharma partners, Enlight will spin out a couple of companies a year. The first is an imaging company called Endra.
Zohar and her colleagues are excited about the Enlight model. “It’s caught the attention of the venture world. We’ve got a lot of emails from colleagues saying it really makes a lot of sense.” Which makes one wonder why they didn’t try it before? For now, at least, many pharma companies have lots of money and a vital interest in addressing their pipeline problems. Perhaps Enlight’s entrepreneurial spirit is exactly the incentive the industry needs.
This article appeared in Bio-IT World Magazine.
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