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Trust Issues: Dealing with Academia


Pharmaceutical Executive

Worried they might get taken for a ride, university tech transfer offices are beginning to hire ex-pharma and biotech personnel to help negotiate deals with industry.

Worried they might get taken for a ride, university tech transfer offices are beginning to hire ex-pharma and biotech personnel to help negotiate deals with industry.

On exiting a theater, writers are often astounded and dismayed by the film resulting from a screenplay they’ve sold to a producer. Punch-up writers have added corny jokes, directors have replaced nuanced dialogue with bombastic proclamation, and editors have substituted long-form visual narrative with jump cuts and montage. However, these collaborators – the directors, punch-up writers and editors – often determine whether a film is a commercial hit or a box office bomb. Writers and producers have to work together so that both parties are satisfied with the end result.

A similar relationship exists between scientists at academic institutions and the pharma industry; intellectual property is like a screenplay, in that it holds the potential for commercial gains, but it takes a team of different kinds of people to bring that potential to fruition. Academics who spend most of their time in the lab regard the commercialization process with skepticism; they may have concerns about the application of their discovery, or they may feel swindled by the financial arrangement.

With the proliferation of university partnerships in recent years, tech transfer offices have sought to provide intermediary staff that academics can trust, so they don’t automatically assume that industry has shown up in the lab for a fleecing. “University tech transfer offices are hiring biotech and pharma people that can say, ‘You really don’t need another mouse study,’ for example. This helps unlock value faster,” noted one participant at PharmExec’s 2012 Dealmaker’s Roundtable yesterday (the full conversation on trends in deal-making will drop in June; for last year’s roundtable conversation, click here).

Susan Desmond-Hellmann, chancellor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), has been credited as a facilitator on deals with Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis and Bayer; before she joined UCSF, she was president of product development at Genentech. “As a former head of product development myself, I think that future investment by industry in more deals with academia will depend on a very business-like assessment by companies on what their return on investment has been. They’re going to do that math, as I would expect them to,” Desmond-Hellmann told Nature Reviews Drug Discovery last year. Academics are doing the math, too. Increasingly, institutions “want to be treated like a small biotech,” said another roundtable participant. To avoid distrust, tech transfer offices and academics should “be able to get advice from someone on their side,” and this can be done through the creation of an advisory board peopled with ex-industry expertise.

Job losses at major pharmas over the last couple of years could result in a larger pool of relevant applicants, and many institutions, including Duke University, the University of California San Diego, the University of Michigan, and many others, already have former industry workers in their tech transfer offices. As for writers, they’ll need to cough up Writers Guild of America dues and hold out for DVD royalties.

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