Senior Staff Writer

VANCOUVER - Dating advice often counsels that the best way to get a date is to ask for one.

The same could be said for biotechnology companies seeking pharmaceutical partnerships. It's possible that big pharma will get wind of a young company's science, approach and begin the partnering dance, but making the first move for biotechnology companies and being proactive can't hurt.

"They should talk to us, that's the first thing they should do," said Michael Levy, vice president, alliance management at New York-based Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., referring to biotechnology companies seeking to garner pharmaceutical attention. He said his company scours websites, attends shows and knocks on doors in its quest to find science and compounds to accentuate its portfolio, but it also hopes that "occasionally, someone will come knock on ours."

Levy was one of three panel members answering questions at the first BioPartnering North America conference here Tuesday about the nature of pharmaceutical-biotechnology deals.

The other panel members - Nicholas Manusos, director, licensing and business development at TAP Pharmaceutical Products Inc. and Jonathan Turner, head of department, business development, at Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH - agreed with Levy. Although pharmaceutical companies often are looking for technologies and compounds that bolster their core competencies and portfolios, Turner said, "We will look at products that have a big therapeutic advantage but are outside our franchises, or ones that have a potential for a big return."

Levy, mentioning that "no one is more dependent on licenses and alliances than we are," outlined a few elements necessary in a deal if it is meant to survive. He said companies should spend the difficult time hammering out a deal and getting it suited to both parties' needs, because "that deal has to live for five, 10, 15 years." Also, he said to build in a mechanism that allows for joint decision-making, and "make sure you have a darn good conflict-resolution mechanism."

When asked how important a "champion" is in a deal, or someone to lead the effort on a certain deal, Turner said, "I think it's important to have a team [as a champion], not just an individual, because individuals come and go in this business."

Stan Yakatan, chairman and managing partner, Katan Associates, and also the leader of the panel, pointed out that "50 percent of deals with big pharma never come to completion and one of the main reasons is that the champion moves on."

The panel also addressed the length of time needed to close deals. Turner, referencing his company's deal with Ballerup, Denmark-based Neurosearch A/S worth potentially $80 million, said that pact was struck in 18 weeks, and "half of that was the final negotiation, after the deal was agreed to go forward. You're not going to get much faster than that."

Levy, acknowledging that Bristol-Myers in the past has done "quick and dirty deals" as well as longer ones, said the company has reworked that aspect of its business and feels "much more comfortable with our internal checks and balances." The company usually takes four to five months to close deals now.

The structure of deals - whether or not there is an equity investment, the size and triggering events of milestones, how research is conducted, etc. - is best decided case by case, the panel agreed.

"I think there is no cookie-cutter approach to this," Levy said. "It depends on both parties. It's up to your needs and what we feel comfortable with."

Manusos told the attendees that "an equity deal is an investment." Buying a piece of a company shows a belief in the science and the company itself.

Levy noted that the U.S. is under more scrutiny now, due to recent corporate scandals, and he anticipates a more conservative approach to partnering. But he told those in attendance - mainly representatives from young biotechnology companies looking for partnering deals - that although his company seeks products and technologies for its core areas, Bristol-Myers won't "ignore areas if it is an unmet medical need." His advice is to approach with a story.

"Our company is built on alliances," he reminded.