Xconomy Forum: The Biotech Odyssey and Xconomy’s Ode to Innovation and Clean Air

12/15/09Follow @bvbigelow

Leave it to the Greeks to provide an epic mythology for interpreting the essence of biotech innovation.

As John Maraganore of Cambridge, MA-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals puts it, drug development is a voyage of Odysseus that requires wily and ingenious problem-solving and extraordinary seamanship. Put another way by Kleanthis Xanthopoulos of Carlsbad, CA-based Regulus Therapeutics, the quest of biotech innovation boils down to a succinct question: “How do you build business in an environment that has been challenging and is likely to continue to be challenging in the future?”

Xconomy logoWe got some answers to that question, and much more, yesterday afternoon during our Xconomy Forum event on biotech innovators and innovations, which was held not on a wine-dark sea, but in the Calit2 auditorium at UC San Diego’s Atkinson Hall. (Maraganore announced his Greek heritage at the outset of his opening keynote presentation, which included a brief digression on the Greek origins of “innovation” and “risk.”) One solution voiced by several speakers is that new ideas and synergies arise through collaborations—which have become a hallmark of San Diego’s life sciences community.

We also heard leading experts talk about the importance of identifying unmet clinical needs, the ingredients of a corporate culture that encourages innovation, and the need to develop multiple drug candidates to increase the number of “shots on goal.”

Xconomy’s national biotech editor Luke Timmerman, who served as the master of ceremonies for the afternoon event, also organized a series of presentations that we billed as case studies in innovation: Fate Therapeutics CEO Paul Grayson on the development of technologies that rely on adult stem cells; Intellikine CEO Troy Wilson on the potential fusillade of new drugs targeting PI3 kinase pathways; and Regulus CEO Xanthopoulos (uh, he’s also Greek) on its approach to a host of new micro-RNA-based therapies.

The audience at Xconomy Forum Monday

The audience at Xconomy Forum Monday

The presentations and discussions culminated in a conversation with David Baltimore, the Nobel laureate and Caltech president emeritus, who says his favorite model for biotech innovation “is to keep it in the academic world until a clear path forward is apparent, and we see a way to bring it to commercialization.”

Alnylam CEO Maraganore charted the route that Alnylam followed in its development of RNA interference drugs, which included raising more than $900 million over the past seven years, including roughly $660 million raised through partnerships with Big Pharma.

Maraganore says several large pharmaceutical companies have turned to a younger generation of scientific leaders because the industry is both starved for new drug candidates and constipated by its inability to bring new drugs to market. In building an environment to support innovation at Alynlam, Maraganore says the biotech set a reasonable timetable to reach its internal goals and shunned “benchmark” management, which he describes as, “what can we do to become more ordinary.” He also emphasized the importance of protecting innovation through extensive patent filings.

We also got a look at a rising generation of young biotech innovators in a panel discussion among San Diego Xconomists, including chemist Sheng Ding of The Scripps Research Institute, Trey Ideker, chief of genetics at the UCSD School of Medicine, and cell biologist Peter Kuhn of The Scripps Research Institute. When moderator David Kabakoff, a San Diego-based partner with Sofinnova Ventures, asked them to identify the special attributes of innovation in San Diego, the panelists’ consensus was San Diego “clean air” and the spirit of collaboration here. “I just felt this was a good place to seed ideas and be creative,” Ideker said. Ding added, “You want to collaborate. You want to open yourself to new possibilities. In my experience, The Scripps Research Institute has been very supportive [of collaboration], the institutional barriers in that regard are very low. We cannot be experts in everything. So collaboration with others, with UCSD, comes naturally.”

David BaltimoreBaltimore echoed their view during his keynote chat with Drew Senyei, managing partner of San Diego’s Enterprise Partners Venture Capital, when he said, “The clean air of San Diego is a reality. There is some sense of opportunity and comfort here. I was here when UCSD was two buildings, and it was just the most wonderful creative, collaborative, and innovative environment.”

For us at Xconomy, however, one of the most satisfying moments came when someone in the audience asked the young innovators’ panel, “What are we not doing in San Diego to encourage innovation?” and Ideker responded, “We’re not having enough of these Xconomy forums.”

Hey Trey, we’ll see what we can do to remedy that.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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