Venture capital firms, universities and corporations need to keep exploring new ideas for collaborating more efficiently. That was the message that emerged from a panel discussion among leading Bay Area biotech leaders who met at UCSF Mission Bay on June 29. Improved ways of communicating are needed to better translate scientific discoveries into improved products and services for society, the panelists said.
These industry-university collaborations have the potential to reduce product development costs and risks of failure, and making good matches among the collaborating partners is a key to success, according to the panel.
Panelists included Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, chancellor of UCSF; Brook Byers, a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers and a supporter of many Bay Area start-ups; and Uwe Schoenbeck, PhD, chief scientific officer for biotherapeutics and external R&D innovation at Pfizer, Inc.
Regis Kelly, PhD, director of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), introduced the panel session, and Gail Maderis, president and CEO of the life sciences trade association BayBio, led the question-and-answer segment of the panel discussion.
Industry and University Relations Are Ahead of the Curve at UCSF
“We in the university cannot really achieve the public good without partnering with industry,” Kelly said while kicking off the session.
Kelly remarked upon the success of a business incubator, called the QB3 Garage, at QB3 in Mission Bay. In just three years, the space – where budding scientist-entrepreneurs can lease lab benches and an office – has become a jumping-off point for 23 start-ups, he said. Another QB3 program, the Innovation Toolkit, employs business-savvy scientist-mentors who help match entrepreneurial scientists with venture capitalists.
Byers noted that in some academic research environments, scientists still are disinclined to engage with industry. That’s not the case at UCSF, where researchers began playing a central role in the development of the biotechnology industry more than three decades ago.
“I think UCSF is one of the best university [basic] research and clinical research centers in the world to interface with,” Byers said. “There has to be an entrepreneurial culture and set of attitudes; it has to be okay on campus to collaborate with industry. UCSF has definitely gotten there. Like all universities 20 or 30 years ago, there was some suspicion or hesitancy at first, but that’s gone here.”
Desmond-Hellmann, who served as president of product development at Genentech before becoming chancellor of UCSF in August 2009, noted significant differences between cultures in academia and industry, as well as some shared interests.
“There are a lot of things that industry does that are not in the sweet spot of anything that academic scientists should care about, and there are a lot of things that academia does that are similar,” Desmond-Hellmann said. “But there is a pretty big section of overlap.”
Industry needs to be able to access discoveries by university scientists, she added. “Innovation is part and parcel of something that industry needs and that academia does every day. There is a recognition that we need to bring those two together in a more effective way,” she said.
“In many cases, the problem that industry is trying to solve is evidenced by a market,” Desmond-Hellmann pointed out. But innovations rarely fit into a market easily. “We need to think about how to make innovations resonate for companies that are thinking very differently from the way scientists think,” she said.
Desmond-Hellmann is especially concerned that innovations in clinical research do not begin to match the advances in fundamental research technologies and techniques, such as the exponential growth in the speed of gene mapping.
“What have we seen that really changes the pace, the efficiency, the predictability of clinical research in my lifetime? Virtually nothing,” she said.
Industry and Academia Across a Cultural Divide
There is a significant cultural divide between academia and industry, Desmond-Hellmann said. When an important discovery is made at a university, “Scientists want to continue asking and answering questions.” In contrast, “Industry wants to finish answering questions and sell it,” she said.
“I used to see my job at Genentech as narrowing degrees of freedom,” Desmond-Hellmann said. “When you first put a drug in a clinical trial, little is known. You’re asking and answering questions and narrowing the outcomes until you know you have a safe and effective drug to sell.” For many academic researchers, research is an “eternal quest and curiosity for knowledge,” she said.
“I think the barriers are coming down,” Schoenbeck said. “Pharma is thinking about how to be more open and inviting, to engage university scientists in problems of interest.” One example, according to Schoenbeck, is that companies are sharing high-quality chemical compounds that they have created with university scientists, who use them to alter biochemical events in disease models, in order to learn more about biological mechanisms of disease or mechanisms of drug action.
Companies also are beginning to collaborate in areas where they have overlapping interests – in toxicity testing, for example, Schoenbeck said.
In industry, Schoenbeck said, “There is a clear recognition that the cost of developing new drugs is becoming close to unbearable. This has driven recognition of the need for closer interactions with academia and agencies, and for consortia with other large pharmaceutical companies.
“The big challenge is to have more targeted approaches to cures,” Schoenbeck said. “The big blockbuster model won’t work in many cases, as it has in the past. We are going to have to understand how our drugs will work, and to tailor clinical development toward understanding which [patient] groups will benefit.”
University scientists can play a strong role in identifying molecules and mechanisms in disease, in identifying molecules that may be suitable drug targets, and in validating identified drug targets as worthy of additional investigation, Schoenbeck said.
According to Desmond-Hellmann, “The cultural differences can be bridged by sharing [differing] objectives and coming to agreement on milestones and outcomes.”
Avoiding Conflicts While Advancing New Treatment Ideas
Desmond-Hellmann, asked about conflicts of interest in industry-university collaborations, said avoiding industry to avoid conflicts is not a productive stance. There is a need to disclose relationships, she said, but the consideration of conflicts should extend beyond consideration of links between university scientists and companies.
“The easiest thing to do to avoid conflicts is to never talk to industry, never interact with industry and have nothing to do with it – and no patients would benefit from discoveries at UCSF,” she said.
“We always focus on money as the most important conflict,” Desmond-Hellmann said. “Universities need money to carry out our mission. I think it is a misperception that money from industry is the only conflict of interest. I would broaden that to include money from NIH, and to things that have nothing to do with money: power, titles, prizes, prestige, publications, promotions.
“I think we need to broaden what we consider as conflicts and to be extremely transparent about what motivates people – what their objectives are – and to include conflicts that look like money because I think that is a very concerning conflict. That’s something where the public’s trust is eroded if we are not very thoughtful.
“But we have to balance that transparency and that need for disclosure with the incredible burden of paperwork. We have to have very straightforward ways of disclosing and auditing, and of protecting the status of the university.
“We all need to have a sense of urgency that what we do at UCSF matters. For some of these discoveries to matter most, they need to get to humans.”
The panel met after a tour of labs at QB3 and a poster presentation session highlighting the core services available to collaborators through QB3. The event was sponsored by QB3 and BayBio.