In Life Sciences Partnerships, You Must be Smart from the Beginning: Takeaways From Xconomy’s On-the-Record Dinner

1/20/12Follow @bvbigelow

As early stage biotech startups advance their drug candidates into pre-clinical development, many must decide at some point whether to start working with a big pharmaceutical or biotech partner to continue to pursue their program through clinical trials.

It’s no small decision, and a topic of increasing industry interest, especially since initial public offerings (IPOs) by life sciences companies have fared poorly in recent years, curtailing their ability to raise cash and develop new drugs on their own. Of the 12 biotechs that went public in 2011, for example, 10 raised substantially less cash than they wanted to, according to the BIO industry group.

The IPO class of 2010 also was schooled in terms of post-IPO performance, with shares in just four of the 12 biotechs trading higher at the end of 2011 than when the companies began trading. Small wonder, then, if Wall Street traders are asking, “Why buy biotech shares at the IPO when we can get them cheaper later?”

So joining forces with larger drug companies offers a wise alternative strategy, which was evident in a new conference that Biocom organized last year to focus on the nitty-gritty of biotech-pharma partnerships. (The Second Annual Global Life Science Partnering Conference convenes in San Diego on Feb. 1, with an agenda that includes VIP speakers from GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Vertex, Novartis, Pfizer, Roche, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.)

Under the circumstances, you’d think these times would be ideal for partnership deals. After all, big pharmas are prospecting for new drug candidates outside their own R&D programs, and late-stage venture financing remains tenuous for today’s startups. But to borrow a pop psychology concept, pharmas and biotechs are from different planets. Startups are almost invariably motivated by a need for capital to advance their drug development program. Hooking up with a particular pharma may or may not align with their true strategic desires. Big pharmas, on the other hand, are looking to fill their pipeline with new products, but they have trust issues. The pharmas ask themselves, “Does that biotech want a true drug development partner, or just some tawdry substitute for venture financing?”

Of course, this isn’t something that happens on Match.com. The process of choosing the right partner and negotiating a … Next Page »

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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