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BioCommunique Article

Last week, some of the leading names in pharma and deal-making offered their expert advice on navigating today’s complex, but optimistic, life science market.

Top Takeaways from Biocom’s 10th Annual Global Partnering Conference

  • 2020-03-06T20:00:00.000+0000
  • San Diego
  • Author: Heather Ramsay

Last week, some of the leading names in pharma and deal-making offered their expert advice on navigating today’s complex, but optimistic, life science market at our 10th anniversary of the Biocom Global Partnering Conference, sold out for the 3rd year in a row with over 415 attendees.

To celebrate the Southern California ecosystem of collaboration and connection, attendees were treated to a gorgeous sunset reception while the Beach Boys tribute band, Surf’s Up, provided tunes and The Gastro Garage’s gastro mechanics created unique treats on the terrace overlooking the world-renowned Torrey Pines Golf Course.

Here are some of the key themes from the 2020 Biocom Global Partnering Conference:

1) THE VALUE OF FEEDBACK, AKA ‘FREE CONSULTING’

At the Big Pharma Panel Discussion, panelists agreed that company presenters who hear ‘no’ should follow the feedback rather than be discouraged.

“When we say not yet, what we try to do is say ‘Not yet, and here’s why.’ Here are the questions that we have and the experiments we’d like you to run so that when you come back, ‘Not yet’ might turn into ‘Now’s great.’”

Rachna Khosla, vice president of business development for Amgen, made a point: “When you are early in the process and someone says 'no, but says here’s why'—there’s a trust element that unfolds. And then six months down the road, three years down the road, if you come back and prove you acted on the guidance—that speaks volumes.”

By that same token, panelists mentioned that companies are weighed against the same criteria the pharma company uses internally, regardless of whether those science gaps are filled down the road. The important part is to keep coming back in order to build your relationship.

2) ON PITCHING YOUR COMPANY

Be Open & Honest: Carole Nuechterlein, head of Roche Venture Fund (RVF), stressed having a very clear statement of what your company is going to do, and the amount of money you’ll need to get you going. “Be open, be candid, and be honest about what your gaps are, and what you need to get your product to the finish line.” Carole noted big pharmas see hundreds, if not thousands of companies a year – and the reality is, they only invest in a few. The building blocks of a successful partnership rely on trust from the start.

Reza Halse, president of Merck Research Labs Ventures (MRLV), doubled down on Carole’s feedback and added, “Present in an honest and balanced way. Don’t exaggerate the upside, and make sure to identify the risks.” Reza equated it to the start of a 4-5-year relationship, mentioning he doesn’t even take any notes in the first meeting – that it’s all about rapport. If it’s a good fit, he believes the partnership can get past any of the inevitable challenges.

Do Your Homework: Nina Kjellson, general partner at Canaan, stressed the importance of doing your homework, advising entrepreneurs to “focus hard on the 10-15 firms that align well” and not waste time and resources going after every big pharma. In addition, Scott Platshon, principal at EcoR1, shared that being able to answer the tough questions on commercialization and proof of concept, as well as what your value inflection really means, will go a long way with investors.

Be Passionate: Above all else, investors are looking for that passionate, convincing story. Differentiate yourselves with a novel molecule, breakthrough science, or an innovative way of delivering solutions to patients in need.

3) ON DATING

A playful theme of the entire conference was the comparison of deal-making to real-world dating. One panelist even shared a personal story of only going on one date with his wife before proposing (followed shortly by a “She’s a saint!” from the audience), though the majority of speakers agreed most relationships, and partnerships, required time for both parties to get to know each other and feel comfortable about the partnership.

Rachna Khosla, vice president of business development for Amgen, stressed that it’s never too early to engage big pharma. "Our business development strategy has always been to partner. It's a low-risk way for both parties to get to know each other and allows you to see what you can accomplish together. It's about getting to understand new technologies and platforms that might enhance what we're already doing."

Scott Platshon, principal at EcoR1, also suggested socializing and meeting investors early in the process, cautioning, “If you’ve never met before requesting investments, it’s almost like asking to get married without ever dating.”

Ioannis Sapountzis, corporate senior vice president of business development for Boehringer Ingelheim chimed in on the dating analogy as well, but cautioned that it’s somewhat of a slippery slope: “I think it really means patience. It takes a lot of dates to get there. I’m sure it wasn’t all hearts and flowers in the three and a half year example referenced earlier. Sometimes a partner walks away. And sometimes you don’t talk the whole time. You could go away for six months and come back. No two deals are the same.” Ioannis quipped with the audience: “Doesn’t the US have a rule that you have to go out at least three times before marriage??

4) ON BUILDING INTERNAL CHAMPIONS

Many of the panelists stressed the importance of companies letting their guard down when building relationships with potential partners, including sharing non-confidential decks, and connecting with key R&D players at scientific conferences, among other helpful suggestions for building internal champions within big pharma and VCs.

Amgen vice president Rachna Khosla said the onus is on the company to communicate the vision to potential partners. “Help us understand what you think you’re trying to accomplish with a particular technology or drug. You might get the ‘ahas’ from the BD team to give you the feedback and potentially become the champion you need. And an internal champion doesn’t always have to be the BD team; the R&D team is also critical. Understanding who in the organization you need to get to, is what small companies and entrepreneurs need to keep in mind.”

Jeffrey Warmke, senior vice president of search and evaluation & alliance management, global business development for Daiichi Sankyo, shared that if his company wants to go under CDA – that’s a great sign. “We’re really the intermediary to foster internal champions for the asset at hand. People have concerns about sharing their baby, but we're not trying to figure out the structure. We’re going to share our data with you, too. Every one of these steps means the dating is getting more serious. If we're asking to go through those steps, we’re doing these steps to build internal champions for you.”

5) ON EARLY STAGE MANAGEMENT TEAMS

Get a Great Executive Board: Carole Nuechterlein, head of Roche Venture Fund (RVF) couldn’t stress the importance enough: “First time CEOs should get a great executive board or executive chair. Doing so gives you more credibility with investors.” Other panelists agreed: have the right group of people in the boardroom and be extremely deliberate with every human you associate with.

Be Rich Heyman: Dan Estes, partner at Frazier Healthcare Partners, spoke candidly about local biotech legend and serial entrepreneur, Rich Heyman. “Use Rich Heyman as an example. I’ll invest in what he suggests. If you’re not Rich Heyman, work for Rich Heyman. Find people my age with experience and a successful track record. Get [people like] Rich involved as much as possible.”

6) THE ART OF THE GLOBAL DEAL

In discussing China, Big Pharma panelists encouraged small companies that are thinking about how to partner abroad to at least consider doing a global deal instead of individual rights deals. If you think about how you’re going to bring benefit to patients and you end up with three different territories in three different countries, they warned, doing that with multiple partners adds complexity and time.

A benefit of working with a pharma company, the panel said, is that the hard work to demonstrate the value of a drug to users in different cultures and countries is easier. Pharma companies have international infrastructure already in place and can help you reach more patients.

7) WHAT VCS LOOK FOR IN PARTNERS

There seems to be a greater opportunity and higher demand for experienced informatics and engineers in today’s life science market, and many of the panelists are looking for similar attributes in their partners:

  • Cohesive decisions at the board and around the table
  • Good management track records, either inherently or by experience
  • People who roll up their sleeves
  • Diversity – of gender, tenure, and opinion

8) ON TIMING

A general consensus among the panelists was that the annual J.P. Morgan Conference is a very tough time to launch a fundraising stage. Think about raising when others are not. VCs can only pay attention to so many companies at one time.

Carole Nuechterlein suggests traveling to Boston, to Cambridge, or another place that’s more relaxed (than JPM), that affords entrepreneurs more time to build a relationship. “Just be willing to come. And send the decks ahead of time. We won’t take a meeting unless we’ve seen the deck.”.

Thanks to all of our Biocom Global Partnering Conference panelists for their participation and valuable insights. And a special thanks to our devoted committee co-chairs: Jennifer Cayer, Igor Bilinksy, Jim Schaeffer, and Mark Wiggins for the creation of #BiocomPartnering conference 10 years ago and for their meticulous planning each year. If you want to hear more soundbites from the conference, follow us on Twitter at @BiocomCA