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Gary RobinsonGary Robinson is an entrepreneur and business executive living in Maryland. He has twenty years of experience in the research, development, and commercialization of innovative technologies in the physical and life sciences. connect with gary on linkedin at www.linkedin.com/in/garynrobinson

Pharma companies are perennially struggling to boost productivity, as measured by drug approvals per dollar of R&D spending. They have tried a number of approaches over the years, from accelerating drug discovery through automated compound synthesis and screening, to de-risking product development by licensing drug candidates from other companies. Charitably speaking, their record of success has been mixed.

The latest in a series of putative productivity-enhancing measures is to locate pharma research groups close to top-flight universities. Novartis and Pfizer have been at the forefront of this trend, having established research facilities in Cambridge, Mass., near MIT and Harvard. Pfizer also has research operations near the University of California (UC) San Francisco and UC San Diego campuses.

The ostensible reason for the shift in venue is to promote closer collaboration between pharma scientists and faculty researchers in order to expedite the discovery and development of innovative medicines. Pharma is eager to tap into academia’s expertise in biology and chemistry, and academia is no doubt thrilled to tap into pharma’s piles of cash.

How this will work in practice is another matter, however. Pharma companies zealously guard their proprietary information, whereas knowledge sharing is the touchstone of academic science. Pharma is in the business of developing profitable products; professors want to generate and publish exciting data. On the discovery front, university-pharma collaborations work best if they focus on answering fundamental questions relating to drug biology or chemistry (e.g., What is the mechanism of action of a compound?). One wonders, however, what Pfizer has in mind when it talks about “jointly translating promising basic research into drug candidates” with its academic partners. Academic scientists typically do not favor the sort of routine, applied research that is required to advance a drug candidate to clinical development.

But regardless of whether the parties work hand-in-hand on experiments, it is no doubt more enjoyable and rewarding for groups of scientists to work in close proximity to one another. Novartis scientists can now attend research seminars at MIT and schmooze with MIT colleagues over ice cream at Toscanini’s. It’s also much easier to recruit young scientists to work in a hip urban center than an insular suburban campus.

One of the (intended?) side effects of this trend is to marginalize biotech, aka “small pharma” companies. Biotech has traditionally played the role of advancing university technologies to a point where pharma feels comfortable stepping in and investing in later stage development and commercialization. In pharma’s mind, however, biotech does not always add value commensurate with the price that it demands. So why not bypass the intermediary and access university inventions directly? This might squelch the entrepreneurial dreams of some professors, but in an era of tight NIH budgets, most universities are undoubtedly quite pleased to accept research funding from corporate patrons.