As Pfizer’s vice president of venture capital, Barbara Dalton will bring two valuable perspectives to Xconomy’s Life Sciences 2031 panel discussion on October 13: that of a VC and that of a pharma executive. Dalton, who was trained in immunology and virology at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, began her career as a research scientist at SmithKline (now GlaxoSmithKline). While there, she was a founding member of EuclidSR Partners, a private New York-based VC firm where SmithKline was a leading limited partner.
Dalton joined Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) at the end of 2007, a few years after the drug giant started up a venture capital unit. At first, Pfizer’s fund was housed in its finance department, and most of its investments were in technologies and services that supported Pfizer’s already-marketed products. Then Pfizer moved the venture group into the worldwide business development organization, and gave it a mandate to invest in ways that support all of Pfizer’s pursuits—not just its marketed products.
Today, Pfizer devotes a $50-million-a-year budget to investing across a wide range of areas, including healthcare IT, health services, and medical devices. About one-third (32 percent) of the portfolio is invested in drug development, while one-fourth (24 percent) is in companies developing diagnostic and imaging products. Healthcare IT is also a big focus: 12 percent of Pfizer’s venture funds are supporting startups in that area.
Xconomy chatted recently with Dalton about Pfizer’s venture investments, and what she hopes comes out of the discussion at Xconomy’s Life Sciences 2031 event.
Xconomy: What’s the reasoning behind the diversity of Pfizer’s portfolio?
Barbara Dalton: They are all products and technologies that in some way or another support our future. Pfizer is a large organization with a diverse set of businesses, from nutritionals to animal health, to consumer brands, vaccines, biologics, and small molecules. I believe the venture capital group should mirror those businesses.
X: How does healthcare IT fit into that mission?
BD: Healthcare IT relates to all of our businesses, because it can be defined quite broadly. There are technologies that, for example, our sales force may use. There are technologies we may use to monitor clinical trials, monitor patients, track a drug product, or manage manufacturing processes. So healthcare IT in its broader definition—and I include pharmaceutical business IT—is part of that.
X: I imagine part of the mission is also to invest in early-stage drugs that Pfizer may someday be interested in developing. How much does that play into investing decisions?
BD: These are investments that are purely investments. We are ahead of the corporation in terms of their [research] interests. We like products that have been demonstrated in humans, but we may invest in a novel product a couple of years ahead of when the corporation would be interested in it. We look for opportunities in the five or six therapeutic areas that Pfizer is working in these days. But we’re also opportunistic, because we know there are other areas that could emerge that are not on Pfizer’s radar screen right now, but that could be important from a therapeutic perspective.
We would do an ophthalmology investment, for example, if we thought it had the potential to be a significant game changer in the marketplace. Another area I like to use as an example is hearing. Pfizer does not have any activities at all in the hearing area. But we all know if somebody could identify something for age-related hearing loss there would be a significant market opportunity. And now Pfizer is working in the area of orphan diseases, so we are considering smaller markets, too.
X: Can you give me an example of a success story from the portfolio?
BD: Last year we sold Avid Radiopharmaceuticals to Lilly. [The purchase price was $300 million, plus $500 million in potential milestone payments.] This was a financial success, not a strategic success. Avid has a PET imaging agent that binds to beta amyloid plaque in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. We financed it in its first institutional round six years ago, so it’s something that started very early on. We felt diagnostics for Alzheimer’s were critical. While we might not have drugs to treat Alzheimer’s right away, if we can at least use better tools in drug development, we have a better chance of getting drugs that can treat or slow down the progression of the disease.
When it came time for them to launch and market their product, they needed a partner to do that. Lilly was the winner of that bid. We’re in support of developing something key to drug research. We believe that’s a strategic win in addition to being a financial win. We didn’t buy the product, but we will have access to it, and I think that’s a good strategy for us.
X: What are you watching out for in the field of oncology?
BD: We’re trying to identify novel targets. We have a company in the portfolio called TetraLogic, which is working on “Smac-mimetics” [to regulate cell death]. It’s a fairly new target for oncology. We also align with our oncology group, which is looking for companies working around mutations that allow physicians to identify target patient populations.
I think we share the belief among many others in the industry that [personalized medicine] is very important. We need to get the right drugs to the right patients. We are very interested in the diagnostics space. But the diagnostics world is in a bit of turmoil now with regard to regulatory and reimbursement environments and it’s something we have to watch very carefully. For example, lets use the Alzheimer’s diagnostic. Without reimbursement, that sort of diagnostic is not going to be used. I don’t understand why there wouldn’t be reimbursement, but I have heard arguments on both sides. We pay careful attention to the regulatory environment, which is changing, and to reimbursement. Diagnostics are an area we very much like to support. But we’re not quite sure about the immediate future because of those questions.
X: Since we’re holding this Xconomy Forum in New York, there may be some discussion of what the city needs to do to become a biotech hotbed. What’s your opinion on that?
BD: I come from Philadelphia, and we suffer the same thing New York suffers from, which is that it’s not Boston or San Francisco. I think it’s important to have appropriately skilled and trained individuals, access to capital, idea flow in science and technology, and low-cost ways to grow businesses. Certainly the New York area has some of the best medical schools in the country, which are quite innovative in the science they do. But the venture capital community here is more focused in the tech sector than the biotech sector.
And of course, having a biotech company in New York is quite different than being a tech startup. A tech company can get a warehouse space, and as long as it has electricity, it can run anything. Biotechs need lab space, and that means a costly infrastructure to support these businesses. Everything in New York is much more expensive than anyplace else. I’m very bullish on the Alexandria Center for Life Sciences, where we’re going to have this panel event. I think it’s going to be a great catalyst. I hope it helps drive that region of the city. But it’s still going to be a challenge to grow and maintain companies in the city. We can take credit for birthing them here, but maybe when they grow up they have to go to a lower-cost place.
X: What do you hope will be a major topic of discussion at Xconomy’s Life Sciences 2031 forum?
BD: One of the areas that I particularly like these days is looking at novel business models. Everybody is facing problems like loss of exclusivity, weak pipelines, and the research community not receiving financing for new drugs. Entrepreneurs keep being entrepreneurial, but they’re not raising enough financing. Corporations such as ours still have needs. But how do we meet the needs of everybody, so we can all be successful going forward? I’m always very interested in novel deal structures—new models, where the investors can reap a return, where entrepreneurs can have their ideas brought forward, and where pharmaceutical companies can benefit from new technologies.
To see Dalton and our other great speakers at Life Sciences 2031, click here.