Drug Development Technology Platforms Alliances: Taking Multiple Shots on Goal for a Big Score
Drug discovery platforms have become critical in unearthing new candidates for the clinic, particularly for Big Pharma companies, which are now seeing 80 percent of their cap being derived from them. Like the tech industry, biopharma companies are using their own technology platforms to come up with not one but often many assets, while simultaneously hedging their bets by testing out more candidates on other organizations’ platforms.
Highly complex alliances are being formed around these broadly applicable platforms, which, rather than being focused on a single molecule or asset, involve multiple programs, therapeutic areas, and indications, giving pharma companies big and small “multiple shots on goal” to net a winner, in the words of Jonathan Kern, PhD, vice president of alliance management at AbbVie.
This is just one of many different unique dynamics of technology platform alliances that came up during a panel discussion, “Advancing Drug Discovery Through Platform Alliances,” held during the second day of the 2023 ASAP BioPharma Conference on Wednesday. This balanced panel representing both big and small pharmaceutical companies discussed nuances around IP, information sharing, governance, and the role of the alliance manager in these collaborations.
All Grown Up: Smaller Companies Leverage Big Companies’ Resources
Where large pharmaceutical companies turn to platforms to generate new assets to add to their pipelines without having to invest in their own proprietary technologies, smaller outfits that own proprietary technology platforms turn to partners for reasons related to “access and risk,” according to Nancy Griffin, CSAP, principal of Cairn Consulting—access to capabilities, new geographies, and funding that larger partners can bring, and risk mitigation that comes from a partner that “can take a certain component of your platform forward in a way that you can’t.”
Biren Shah, vice president and head of alliance management at EQRx, added two more motivators: “speed and cost.” Without an abundance of internal lab resources, his company looks to “partner to enhance our pipeline cost efficiently and get to R&D enablement much faster than we could on our own.”
Moderator Jake Beverage, vice president of alliance management at AbCellera, also noted that drug development platform companies know their technology but often don’t have any experience in the therapeutic areas of the candidates that emerge. The partners that are experimenting on their platforms do.
“You get access to this deep, deep knowledge. You get this mature, grown-up drug development process,” he said.
Fair Share: Detailing What Data Can Be Exposed to Partners
One of the key themes that came up throughout the panel was the need to gate access to information and data appropriately. Oftentimes, platform companies are working with partners who compete with each other. The terms “shrouding,” “firewall,” “gates,” and “guardrails” came up at various points of the discussion to illustrate the larger point that partners have to dedicate extra time and attention to protecting proprietary information and ensuring that data winds up in appropriate hands only. This poses a challenge at AbbVie because discovery scientists often have an “academic mindset”—they are “very comfortable sharing, very comfortable being transparent,” according to Kern.
Shah shared his company’s head of development sciences is a “heavy hitter” in the industry who constantly pushed the boundaries for more information about EQRx’s joint platform initiatives. He urged alliance managers to “have a strong backbone with your own people” internally.
“Your responsibility as an alliance manager is to keep the collaboration secure, safe, sound, and moving forward,” he said.
Griffin utilizes an “onboarding FAQ,” which all team members can reference “what can we share, what can we not share.”
“They don’t want to be constrained, but people want to know the guardrails,” she added.
Penciling in a Balance of Easy and Hard Projects
Scott Miller, senior director of early phase alliance management at Eli Lilly and Company, offered some tips for optimizing these alliances. First, he recommended arranging a platform portfolio to have a “good balance” of easy targets that could net some “early wins” and some longer shots that may be harder to bring to fruition but could deliver breakthroughs in uncharted areas within the industry.
Miller also noted that with early-stage science of this nature, there is a tendency for scientists to keep hitting their heads against the wall trying to make the science work. He proffered that it’s important to know when to cut your losses.
“There’s always one more experiment. Let’s go back. Let’s retool. Sometimes it’s hard to know when it’s pencils down,” said Miller.
Surprise, Surprise: A Bill, an Acquisition, and a Team Coming Together
Like many other types of alliances, drug development platform collaborations are full of surprises, good and bad. Kern described a situation where a partner had control of resulting IP and the findings weren’t ideal for the target AbbVie was pursuing. The partner presented AbbVie “with a new development plan for their platform and a bill” for new wrinkles to the partner’s technology, touching off a debate over to what degree AbbVie was responsible for funding the ongoing development of the platform itself.
A few of the panelists exhorted alliance managers to encourage all parties to think through details around IP and information sharing thoroughly in the contract negotiation phase in order to head off these types of conflicts down the road.
Both Griffin and Shah saw companies get acquired in the midst of platform collaboration initiatives. In fact, the purchase of Shah’s company was set to close the following day. In the near term, there will be some uncertainty around the fate of some of EQRx’s platform projects.
“There may be more surprises ahead,” Shah quipped.
Miller has been pleasantly surprised at “how easily teams come together,” often because everybody is excited about the possibilities of what is more often than not novel science. It’s often hard for an outsider to know who each team member is employed by because “everybody is working as one team,” he observed. “It makes my job easy [when I don’t have to worry about stakeholder conflict].”
Two Great Tastes That Go Great Together
At the end of the day, platform alliances present many differences in people, governance, and process. Griffin felt that some of these differences are what make these collaborations special.
“Respect the complementarity. A platform pharma-biotech deal truly is your peanut butter and chocolate. Really, they go together well as long as you respect the fact that they’re different and that they each bring something separate to the table,” she said.