BioWorld International Correspondent

ZICHRON YA'AKOV, Israel - Merck & Co. Inc. invited about 80 Israeli biotechnology and drug discovery companies, academic institutions and research organizations with biotechnology and drug development activities to an open meeting in Herzilya last month to introduce itself and offer business partnerships aimed at finding new drugs and biotechnology applications.

Israeli entities were asked to submit their ideas, plans and proposals by the first week of June for the first round of agreements.

The Israeli meeting was organized by the Merck Research Laboratories (MRL) external scientific relations division, through its local representative, MSD (Merck, Sharp & Dohme) Israel Ltd. in Petach Tikva.

Louis Mandel, in charge of MRL's program seeking to activate opportunities in emerging markets, stated the firm's broad opening position. "We are seeking various partnerships in all therapeutic fields, with all kinds of scientific cooperation and business models."

"Merck is actually optimizing drug discovery by going where the discoveries are," Yael Cohen, medical director of MSD Israel, which hosted the meeting on behalf of MRL, told BioWorld International.

MSD Israel CEO Yossi Ben-Amram explained that Merck's interest in Israel is part of the drug company's outreach into countries it has identified as most likely to find important scientific discoveries with the greatest potential: Australia, China, India, Israel, Russia, South Korea and Taiwan.

In other words, Merck is fishing where the fish are most plentiful.

Most ethical drugs derive from activities of smaller and younger companies, Mandel pointed out, so Merck made a strategic decision not to pursue mega-mergers with other pharmaceutical manufacturers, but "to grow by acquiring external know-how through partnerships and acquisitions involving start-ups and biotechnology know-how."

Some of Merck's current top-selling drugs actually started as molecules that were discovered and developed outside of the company.

Merck spent $2.9 billion on research and development last year, and said it sees that as good investment for a well-secured future.

Several committees - scientific, business and legal - are vetting the proposals, including intellectual property rights and patents. Companies invited to apply preferably had identified a mechanism of action, and demonstrated proof of concept.

The discovery process is expected to be ongoing, and there are no false expectations of finding a molecule ready to be marketed.

"We anticipate that by the end of June, we will have made a initial selection of which firms will be further explored via in-depth face-to-face meetings," Cohen said.

Cohen, the senior liaison with MRL, said, "Even if we get just one successful molecule, the program will be considered worthwhile.

"This program is as an extension of the international MRL program and is not structured like a venture capital fund that has a strictly allocated budget with a deadline to invest or a pressing need to make the money back on a schedule; rather, attractive opportunities will compete with initiatives from around the world and with internal Merck research," Cohen said.

MSD Israel, established about five years ago, distributes Merck products, and the medical department operates a research and clinical trial facility responsible for the Israeli patients enrolled in several clinical trials being conducted in Israel on behalf of MRL, part of MSD International.

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