he J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference is like the Olympics for biotechnology entrepreneurs. Every January, small companies with big ideas go for the gold: the chance to see their innovation, hard work, and talent recognized and rewarded with the resources they need to move forward.
As the show kicks off, entrepreneurs naturally focus on how to win the attention of major players who can offer the capital, scientific expertise, and development experience it takes to turn a promising innovation into a successful medicine — or, better yet, to completely change the way the industry thinks about therapy.
As someone who led small private and public biotechs before joining Genentech to focus on partnerships, I’ve been on both sides of such budding relationships. Here are some thoughts on how to build a truly effective partnership.
Know what to work on. Before you even start to think about partnerships, you have to decide which molecule or scientific path to pursue. It may sound trivial, but it’s the first and most important decision that startup investors and CEOs make, and often it’s not thought through as deeply as it should be. In oncology, for example, there are classes of medicines with multiple therapeutics already in the marketplace and many more undifferentiated molecules in development, yet startups continue to work on these slight variations of existing medicines.
There may be economic reasons to join the fray but, in my opinion, developing slight variations on an existing theme is not sound corporate or scientific strategy. The best biotech companies don’t follow what’s already being worked on by others, but rather take novel approaches and thoughtful risks to force or cancer.
Plan to partner. Virtually everyone has to partner. The reality of our business is that 9 in 10 prospective therapeutics that enter clinical development fail tocome risk averse and unadaptive. Smaller innovators force these large companies to adapt in order to survive — it’s a wonderful symbiosis. The relevant questions then become when to partner, with whom to partner, and how to structure the arrangement.