White Coats & Suit Jackets: A Coming-of-Age Story - Pharmaceutical Executive

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White Coats & Suit Jackets: A Coming-of-Age Story

Pharmaceutical Executive


5. No Easy Money

Although NIH grants carry more prestige than those from industry, the latter tend to be easier to apply for, says Hunter Heath III, a former academic physician who spent a decade as a medical executive at Eli Lilly before retiring three years ago. However, industry has become steadily more bureaucratic, with layers of intellectual property (IP) agreements, disclosure rules and attempts to manage publications that researchers ought to consider in advance, says Heath, now an Indianapolis-based consultant advising pharma on company/academic relations and other areas of the business.

"If we are talking about an investigator-initiated grant, the contract should stipulate what IP remains with the grantee, if the funder has a right to see data first and a right of first refusal on commercialization or use in drug development." The contract also should explicitly state the company's policy regarding publication. "These days, it's more likely to put few barriers in the grantee's way," Heath adds. "The company may want the right to see the data before presentation or publication, which I think is fair."

Another drawback with respect to industry money, Heath says, is what it doesn't come with: provisions for the overhead, indirect costs associated with experimentation. Universities covet those kinds of less-restricted dollars. Funds are "generally low-prestige grants that pay the host institutions no indirects and support little or no staff time," he says. Similarly, he says, society grants are quirky and specific to the organization's focus, and also tend to be small, pay no indirects, and carry little weight for promotion and tenure.

6. Seek Value, Not Returns

Several years ago, the administration at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston realized that their facility might be a leading center of clinical medicine, but it wasn't setting any records for promoting the new ideas and inventions of its staff. "There were almost no oncology drugs that MD Anderson didn't have some hand in developing. But the white coats—the researchers and the physicians—did not have a good relationship with the business suits," recalls Dr. Olivier Wenker, an anesthesiologist at MD Anderson. "For an institution of our size, we did very little business with industry. There was a canyon that needed to be bridged."

The hospital tabbed Wenker to be director of technology discovery for the Office of Translational Research. That proved to be a shrewd move. Over the last seven years, Wenker and his colleagues presided over an explosion of collaborations between MD Anderson's faculty and the pharmaceutical industry—a coming-of-age tale with lessons for other institutions hoping for the same.

Wenker's first goal was to look for existing nuggets of promising research that were moldering away, forgotten or shelved for lack of funding. "There are probably a lot of inventions that never get disclosed in the first place. They're just sitting in drawers or in abstracts that haven't been published," he said. Wenker launched an aggressive campaign to shake loose these discoveries from the pockets of the white coats, talking to individual scientists and evangelizing about technology transfer. Within a year, MD Anderson's faculty increased their disclosures of intellectual property by 30 percent—and that was work that had already been done.

Wenker's group evaluated 1,600 ideas and winnowed that down to about 100, eventually forwarding a list of the 45 most promising projects to a committee. The result was a core of 40 projects that MD Anderson has spent roughly $2 million pursuing over the last half-dozen yeas.

Although the institution has earned back its outlay, Wenker says return on investment is not the best way to look at the proposition. The dollars MD Anderson has spent have returned in the form of industry-sponsored research agreements, additional government grants, investments by private "angel" financiers and more. "There is much, much more value that comes back. We brought in $20.5 million, so we have 10 times the return," Wenker says. "I call this 'return on value.'"

7. Get a Good Umbrella

If making academia more open to industry collaboration is philosophically challenging, building the legal framework for such arrangements can be an even greater task. After all, no one wants to give away the farm in patents and rights exchange for a near-term windfall of grant money.

At MD Anderson, it took nearly two years of regular meetings before the institution settled on an umbrella agreement, inspired by those from the film and oil exploration industries, to cover its sponsored research, Wenker says. Such agreements can also solve a critical problem for universities: the lack of adequate "gap" funding. While private investors occasionally appear to shepherd a basic discovery from the lab into the prototype phase, for example, those sources of money aren't reliable, Wenker says. With umbrella agreements, which his colleagues Stan Tucker, PhD, and Luetta Allen, PhD, arrange, the financing is steady enough, and substantial enough—in the "tens of millions," says Wenker—to close any gaps. "We create one with each pharma company separately, which will cover any two-to five-year project, and that prevents us from having to renegotiate every time we want to make a new collaboration with that company."

Although the benefits of the tech transfer system at MD Anderson is obvious to people like Wenker, he admits that some members of the faculty haven't embraced it with open arms. "You get those that deny talking to pharma because they think it's the dark world," he says. "But in the end, if you just do research in your lab just to get publications, it's a waste of animals, it's a waste of resources. You want to get a drug out. It really needs to be something for the patient more than just a publication."

Adam Marcus is Managing Editor of Anesthesiology News. He can be reached at


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