SAN DIEGO – At the Biocom 10th Annual Global Life Sciences Partnering Conference, panels of pharma executives highlighted what they're looking for to supplement their pipelines and offered advice that ran the gamut from company formation to the courting process to strategies for partnering pipeline drugs and platforms.

Pharmas have historically put a lower priority on in-licensed drugs. Angele Maki, whose been vice president of emerging technology and innovation at Eli Lilly and Co. for seven months, noted the Indianapolis-based company had “absolutely suffered from the not-invented-here syndrome,” but over the last several years, the company has "made a strong pivot towards focusing a lot more on partnering."

"I think there's a lot of innovation happening in big pharma, but obviously there's much more innovation happening outside of big pharma," Ioannis Sapountzis, corporate senior vice president of business development at Boehringer Ingelheim Inc., told the audience. "What we are looking for in partners is really someone who complements our knowledge and our expertise."

"What we're interested in is a molecule that does something extraordinary, and by definition, something that's extraordinary is something that not everyone else is doing," said Ben Thorner, senior vice president of business development and licensing at Merck & Co. Inc.

Companies should keep in mind that while pharmas have a lot of capital, their resources aren't unlimited. Jeffrey Warmke, senior vice president of search and evaluation and alliance management, global business development at Tokyo-based Daiichi Sankyo Co. Ltd., noted that a new opportunity has to be more attractive than internal candidates. “Typically, when we in-license an asset, we're setting something else aside that we're already working on.”

To keep a company's options open, multiple panelists advised against doing regional licensing deals, especially in China, because most pharmas would prefer to have global rights. "China rights are extremely important," Merck's Thorner stressed. "China is becoming our number two market on the planet."

If a company feels the need to do a regional licensing deal to raise cash before a pharma partner would be willing to step in, the panel recommended incorporating buyback rights that would allow a big pharma the ability to secure the global rights down the line.

Dating 101

While there are some whirlwind relationships that result in elopements, the panelists stressed that it was best to allow time for the companies to get to know each other, allowing the pharma executives time to become more comfortable with a biotech's programs.

"A deal may not be the right place to start," Daiichi's Warmke noted. "Figuring out a way to collaborate together on a project to help you add value to your program, but also allow us to understand the science or the technology, and maybe feel comfortable that it's something that we'd want to do something with down the road."

Rachna Khosla, vice president of business development Amgen Inc., concurred, "We believe, especially on the earlier-stage side, that it's a low-risk way for both parties to get to know each other and go through a courtship that allows you to see what you can actually accomplish together."

Amgen's Bi-specific T Cell Engagers (BiTEs) platform started off as a collaboration with Micromet Inc. that eventually resulted in Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Amgen acquiring Micromet for $1.16 billion in 2012."We got to know the company, got to know the technology, and one day said, 'We really should just own this,'" Khosla recalled.

Of course, sometimes partnerships remain as partnerships. "That's a question that gets answered over time," Khosla explained.

Boehringer Ingelheim, of Ingelheim, Germany, has begun holding office hours at different biotech hubs around the world where small companies can come in and share problems they're having, and BI will help where it can. While the main purpose isn't for partnering talks, Sapountzis noted that a recent deal that BI did with San Diego-based Trutino Biosciences Inc. for up to three drugs based on Trutino’s On-Demand-Cytokine platform occurred after the company started coming to BI's office hours.

And if you're really attractive, you might just get asked to meet. "We're not passively waiting for in-bounds. We're actually going out and inviting people to date us," said Avi Spier, head of search and evaluation at Novartis AG.

When talking with pharma companies, the panelists stressed that it's important to be honest about the current state of affairs. "There's no harm in saying, 'I don't know,'" Khosla noted. "That may be why you're looking to partner with somebody because you are in that position of maybe needing help from someone that's done it more or has visibility into certain capabilities."

Even when pharma companies initially say no, there's an opportunity to build trust and extend the relationship by finding out the questions they have and then doing the experiments to get the answers. "When you start that contact with the big company, push for feedback," Khosla advised. "That's part of the courtship."

"It's free consulting," noted Alex Szidon, vice president and head of business development, Genentech Inc.'s gRED.

One way to get in front of big pharma is to rent space from them. Over the last decade, many large companies have established incubators, including Lilly, which recently built what Maki calls an "incubator-like" space in South San Francisco where it has 32 no-strings-attached modules for rent. The modules don't have shared equipment – thus the "incubator-like" – but Lilly is still "very selective of who we invite in," with a plan of having half of the companies in the space aligned with Lilly's focus. "I think it's really an interesting win for us to explore novel science with not a lot of money spent on our side."

While the dating analogy that trickled through the panels was on the company level, Genentech's Szidon noted that there also has to be a relationship among the actual people at the companies. "What we're doing is hard, so you might as well step into that stuff with people you like, with organizations you can trust."

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