Bio Bigwigs from Boston and Beyond Gather in Cambridge to Discuss Future of Drug Development, Venture Capital, and Deals with Pharma
There’s little arguing (at least from me) that the hottest ticket in town yesterday was the Boston Red Sox’ opening day game at Fenway Park—but for ardent biotech fans in the Hub there was arguably no better place to be than across the Charles River in Cambridge for the Boston Biotech Business Development Conference. The conclave featured senior-level professionals—representing a cross section of industry stakeholders from Big Pharma, large biotechs, and venture firms—who discussed and debated the opportunities and obstacles facing the embattled life sciences sector.
The event at the Charles River Hotel was no PowerPoint snoozer. There were some lively talks given by the top dealmakers from Cambridge-based biotech heavyweights Genzyme (NASDAQ:GENZ) and Biogen Idec (NASDAQ:BIIB) as well as drug giants GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) and Merck (NYSE:MRK), among others. Several discussions focused on the importance of innovation in healthcare to surviving the economic slump and on challenges such as healthcare reform and generics competition. There was also some debate about whether innovation means breakthroughs in science, drugs that deliver substantial benefits for patients, products that garner premiums from healthcare payers, or some combination of the three.
Yet collective wisdom appeared to be that innovation—in various manifestations—is critical to survival of the life sciences industry. Many biotech firms are operating with less than enough cash to last a year, which means they must be innovative in how they use it, and companies raising money during the economic slump must clear a high bar with investors to show they have products that are truly novel and valuable. On the flip side, venture firms must prove that they can profit from innovation to garner limited capital from their limited partner investors. And with biotech investment dollars scarce, drug companies are wielding even more clout than before the economic meltdown—putting them in a position to gain rights to or ownership of innovative assets on the cheap.
Here are some of the highlights and colorful moments from the gathering:
—The line of the day (in my book) went to Ad Rawcliffe, senior vice president of worldwide business development for GSK: “Big Pharma is often the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and sometimes I feel quite hairy, but having the 800-pound gorilla on your side at times like these is not a bad place to be.” (There were no arguments there from conference organizer Christoph Westphal, CEO of Cambridge-based biotech Sirtris, who has operated the firm as a unit of GSK since the drug company shelled out a whopping $720 million to acquire Sirtris last year.)
—On the future of venture investing, expect to see fewer VC firms raising smaller funds, but raising them more frequently than in recent years, said veteran biotech investor Alex Barkas, cofounder and managing director of Prospect Venture Partners in Palo Alto, CA. Barkas—who in true West Coast fashion sported casual boat shoes, kaki pants, a yellow shirt, and a brown vest—said that smaller funds would reduce the need for big exits and would lower the fees that VCs charge to manage funds. He also expects venture firms to raise funds with more focused investment goals than before.
—Jean-Francois Formela, a partner at the Waltham, MA, office of Altas Venture who moderated a VC panel, asked his panelists to comment on a novel business model for biotech-focused venture firms: to fund drug-development projects under the management of the venture firm as opposed to the traditional model of raising money to create new companies to manage such projects. This model would remove the need for CEOs and executive teams, reducing the overall capital burn rate of the company. Credit Formela for raising the level of debate. Still, Greg Weinhoff, of CHL Medical Partners in Stamford, CT, said that he thought that CEOs were too important in moving programs forward to do without them.
—On the topic of innovation, I got one interesting view when I interviewed former retinal surgeon Gene Ng, who is now an analyst for life sciences hedge fund RA Capital in Boston. Ng pointed to Lexington, MA-based AMAG Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:AMAG) as an example of an innovative company because its experimental iron-replacement drug ferumoxytol (Feraheme) for people with kidney disease could be given to patients at doctors’ offices rather than at infusion clinics like existing treatments. “Innovation has to be grounded in reality,” Ng said, “and it’s probably not something that is risky science where markets may not exist.”