Peter Schultz on New Merck-Funded Institute: ‘We’re Getting Lots of Resumes’

3/16/12Follow @xconomy

Merck made big news in San Diego yesterday when it said it is committing $90 million over seven years to a new nonprofit drug discovery shop led by chemist Peter Schultz. I caught up with Schultz briefly yesterday by phone to gather more information about the institute, called the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr).

The new Calibr institute will be set up on the Torrey Pines Mesa, not far from top academic centers like The Scripps Research Institute, the Salk Institute, and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, Schultz says. The institute will set out to do early-stage drug discovery work, essentially much of the blocking and tackling that comes after a biological hypothesis is formed that says a biological target might be promising for drug development, Schultz says.

Getting people on board is one of the first orders of business at Calibr. The new institute will look to recruit 100 to 150 people with skills in medicinal chemistry, protein chemistry, pharmacology, imaging, screening, and analysis of basic in vitro (lab dish) and in vivo (animal) tests that have to be done to prove that a drug candidate is worth testing in man. Once that basic concept is proven, Calibr will hand off the drug candidates to the folks in industry, at Merck and elsewhere, who are good at the later stages of R&D.

Big Pharma companies like Merck have been struggling for years at this kind of early stage R&D, and many of them have resorted to laying off scientists, even as their pipelines have withered. While academic research centers tend to excel at understanding basic biology, they sometimes don’t bother going very far down the road of “translational” research of the kind that industry does, partly because of a historic lack of grant funding. But Schultz says he’s already lined up academic collaborators to work with Calibr, and he says the new nonprofit should be able to work nimbly with academics on translational projects, because Calibr will have financing that comes from industry, without having to deal with the various layers of decision-making that tends to slow things down in big companies.

“It’s easy for nonprofits to work together in a collaborative mode, but as soon as you enter into a relationship between a huge company and a small group, it’s a lot harder to form collaborations,” Schultz says, citing legal and licensing hassles. “If you’re just two research groups, you can enter into collaboration, and it’s simple. Any revenues that may come from the work, we share equally. It’s an easy thing to do, when two equals work together in a complementary way.”

By just a few hours after Calibr’s founding was announced, Schultz said he got more than 30 resumes from people inquiring about new job opportunities (Merck spokesman Ian McConnell says the total is more than 50 when counting collaboration inquiries). Schultz sounded as though he’s going to be pretty selective about who ends up getting hired. “We want people who have been there, done that,” he says, although he adds that there will be room in the new institute for promising postdocs.

Schultz, a prolific chemist who co-founded San Diego-based Ambrx among other companies, says he’s still going to keep one foot in academia while he concentrates on leading the new Merck-funded institute. Schultz will keep his lab at Scripps, and continue to do much of his basic biology work there, while transferring projects with a more applied bent into the Calibr institute.

The organization will be set up like a lot of nonprofit research centers, with principal investigators and postdocs, Schultz says. The organization will be kept relatively “flat,” he says. “We’re not going to have a highly structured place where A reports to B who reports to C, with all sorts of levels of decision making,” Schultz says.

Schultz didn’t say too much specifically about what kinds of projects the Calibr institute will work on. “The key criterion is that it’s something with a novel approach,” he says. “We don’t want to do things pharma and biotech companies are already doing, and we want them to address a significant unmet need.” That said, Schultz cited some very familiar territory for corporate R&D efforts—immunology, cancer, metabolic disease, cardiovascular disease, degenerative and regenerative medicine as areas of potential inquiry.

Obviously, the relationship with Merck is a close one. Peter Kim, the president of Merck Research Laboratories, will have a window into what’s going on at Calibr through his role on the scientific advisory board. And in exchange for its financial support, Merck is getting the first opportunity to negotiate for exclusive licenses to compounds that emerge from research by Calibr and its collaborators.

Anything Merck chooses not to in-license could be harvested by other companies, he says.

“The hope is we’ll do things Merck is really excited about because they’re a terrific partner who can take things to the next level,” Schultz says. “But if they don’t, they want to make sure any discoveries are fully exploited, so the institute will have the freedom to take those to other organizations.”

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