Novartis Backing Enlight Biosciences

6/15/09

Swiss drug giant Novartis has joined a cadre of big pharmaceutical companies that are supporting Boston-based Enlight Biosciences, a startup focused on developing technologies to improve drug discovery and development efforts, Enlight founding CEO David Steinberg confirmed.

Enlight has also recruited another unnamed large pharma firm into the group recently, says Steinberg, but he wouldn’t name the company. That brings the number of big drug companies to back Enlight to six—including Eli Lilly, Merck & Co., Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson. The companies are supporting Enlight to gain access to the research tools and technologies it is developing on a pre-competitive basis, meaning that the drug companies will all have the option to use the same new technologies—which will span such areas as molecular imaging, drug formulation, and drug synthesis. PureTech Ventures of Boston co-founded and manages Enlight.

Steinberg wasn’t expecting to confirm Enlight’s deal with Novartis so soon, but Charles Wilson, vice president and global head of strategic alliances at Novartis, revealed news of the partnership during a panel discussion on life sciences partnerships at the annual Convergence meeting in Newport, RI, last week. Wilson is based in the Cambridge, MA, headquarters of Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, the research and development division of Novartis.

Enlight’s business model is built around a common desire among large drug companies to find technologies that improve the chances of their drugs succeeding in clinical trials, or, give them a better idea of how a drug will work in humans before it is advanced into clinical trials. The bottom line is that the biopharmaceutical industry burns through billions of dollars per year on efforts to develop drugs that end in failure. You can check out some of our previous coverage on Enlight for further details on drug industry spending on research, and on how little return companies have typically received on their research investments.

Steinberg declined to talk about the specifics of Novartis’ contribution to Enlight, but he said that the terms of the deal were similar to previous pacts between Enlight and its pharmaceutical partners. The first four companies to strike deals with Enlight each committed about $13 million to the startup, which uses some of the money to cover management expenses and spends the bulk of capital to launch spin-offs that are focused on developing specific R&D technologies.

Enlight is responsible for tracking down technologies from multiple academic and industry sources, and Enlight’s pharma partners get to choose the programs and technologies in which they invest. Enlight has already launched a virtual startup, Endra, which develops technology that combines the capabilities of ultrasound and optical imaging to, for example, show researchers whether a drug is shrinking tumors during clinical trials.

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