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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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July 22, 2011

Right Up Next to Academia

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Posted by Derek

Here's one of Pfizer's get-close-to-academia research centers, being established near UCSF. The idea is that you not only want to do deals with academic research centers (and associated small biotechs), you also want to be physically present with them:

"Proximity leads to progress; this promises to be a very strong liaison," said Dr. Warner Greene, director of virology and immunology research at Gladstone Institutes, a basic-science research nonprofit at Mission Bay that will sublease space to Pfizer. "There is a valley of death for many basic-science discoveries that have significant promise because they are not far enough advanced to be of interest to a biotech or pharmaceutical company. By forming closer relationships between Pfizer and biotech companies, I think more creative solutions can be had for moving research down the pipeline."

Now, I would like to believe that this is true, but what I'd like to believe doesn't necessarily correspond to reality. I do think that (for various reasons) it will hurt your small biopharma company's chances if you establish it in, say, Sioux Falls, Yakima, or Louisville. So being "out of the loop" can hurt, but does it follow that being ever more tightly in it helps? Does anyone have evidence that speaks to this?

Comments (28) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. PharmaHeretic on July 22, 2011 9:07 AM writes...


Since when have pharma management brainfarts been informed by objective reality or rationality. Obviously you still believe that people who run these companies are something more than steal-and-run conmen pretending to make rational decisions.

and some people say I am "too cynical".

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2. Rick on July 22, 2011 9:17 AM writes...

While not exactly evidence as you may be requesting it, I'd like to offer a relevant historical observation. Introduction of private sector-type incentives and management-think to make academic research more productive (e.g. Bay-Dole and Hatch-Waxman, current IP law and practice for publicly-funded research) precisely coincides with the onset of what we now lament as the decline in innovative productivity (new drugs discovered per billion R&D dollars) in drug discovery. Before that time, universities and other not-for-profit research centers had much different, less "incentivized" relationships and more drugs consistently resulted year after year. The Pfizer relationships with academia (as well as those of other major pharmas) entail working even harder at that model of "managing" basic research and basic researchers from outside industry in the hope of achieving a different outcome. Some quote about the definition of insanity comes to mind...

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3. Ed on July 22, 2011 9:36 AM writes...

What makes the Pfizer leadership (I use the term loosely) think they can pick research center winners any better than they can pick small molecule winners?

Bet your bottom dollar that across the board in ten years time all Pharma management will be squealing about the dearth of quality early stage (pre-clinical/Phase 1) assets as a result of the current environment. Face facts - the drug "trees" of 2022 will have to grow from seeds planted today. They simply aren't planting enought trees, and expect someone else to be doing it for them.

Bonehead leaders at Big Pharma don't want to pay to plant 200 seeds at $3-5m a pop. They want to control, milestone, prioritize, rearrange, manage, mismanage, enthuse, politic, "lead" - anything but let the innovators innovate free from their bureaucratic nonsense.

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4. Quintus on July 22, 2011 9:50 AM writes...

Well said, an absolutely wonderful post.

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5. Yossarian on July 22, 2011 10:05 AM writes...

I have postdocked at Harvard for couple of years. In all that time I have only been to four places: my department, my apartment and 2 bus stops. I was under the impression that I will have plenty of free time when I start working in the industry. It turned out not to be the case – whatever spare time I have needs to be devoted to family and upkeep of the house.

Physical proximity will have minimal or no effect on the flow of ideas from academia to industry. If you disagree, could you please tell me if you know the names of your neighbors a block away from your home…

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6. SP on July 22, 2011 10:14 AM writes...

I don't know, I've been to a certain bar just down the street from where Derek works (also near PFE, MLNM, NVS, SNY, and dozens of small companies) that's great for eavesdropping during lunch and happy hour. That's as good a place to pick up new project ideas as any other...

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7. Anonymous on July 22, 2011 10:29 AM writes...

postdoc is more minion than liason

and is bigpharma in the seed planting business?

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8. simpl on July 22, 2011 10:46 AM writes...

Novartis are getting good milage from their outpost set up in Boston a decade ago;-) They are starting the same in Singapore and China, so check back for progress in 10 years. But they also bought in Sienna (vaccines) and Vaccaville (biotech) so geographical diversity is only one dimension.
Regarding management of R&D, surely the project portfolio is the key? I've always felt that ideas are the cheapest part of that process, so aim for plenty of good ones and keep a large back-burner. However, I'm glad I'm not an R&D manager.

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9. Nick K on July 22, 2011 10:47 AM writes...

Big Pharma management is like the Upas tree of classical mythology, which kills everything in its shade.

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10. NJBiologist on July 22, 2011 12:12 PM writes...

"Proximity leads to progress..."

Then why have they farmed out so much work on the other side of the planet?

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11. bootsy on July 22, 2011 12:32 PM writes...

Some concrete advantages might be:
Recruiting: It's easier to get smart people to move to an area they already like and might already live in. However bad the market, the best people can still be hard to hire.
Information: Seminars, workshops, and conferences tend to take place in academic centers, making it easier to go and stay on top of things. Like the bar mentioned in #6, but more formal. (I know that bar...)

That said, Dan Flynn seems to be doing ok in Lawrence, KS with Deciphera.

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12. Schubert on July 22, 2011 1:20 PM writes...

Great! Now my tax dollars can fund (more of) Pfizer's research without the added hassle of Pfizer actually producing any jobs.

Happy happy, joy of joys!

Pfizer gets free grad student and post doc labor, free use of University infrastructure funded by NIH grants and most importantly gets to STEAL the ideas of all their slave labor serfs.

With the advent of the US patent office's new 'first to file system', stealing ideas is made clean and hassle free, providing your CEO with countless hours of stress free exploitation.

So why am I funding these bogus academics and their high livin lifestyles when I can just send the money to Pfizer directly?

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13. BiotechTranslated on July 22, 2011 2:32 PM writes...

Apparently Pfizer is not only staffing the site with Pfizer employees, but also bringing some technology along with it.

I think it's an interesting experiment. You have close collaboration with a number of academic labs, along with Pfizer employees who are familiar with the in-house technology that Pfizer has. Let's say someone from the academic lab comes up with an interesting experimental result and a Pfizer employee hears about it and mentions how they can run assay X, Y and Z (either assays unavailable to UCSF or proprietary to Pfizer) and get results in a couple days. That's true collaboration and will likely help identify promising programs much earlier than normal.

I have no idea if it will actually work, but it seems like a better idea than running two separate research programs (one at UCSF and one at Pfizer) where the only information sharing is through monthly reports.


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14. No7 on July 22, 2011 4:18 PM writes...

It should be abundantly clear by now that you cannot legislate drug discovery. Not by the talking heads in big pharma or at the NIH, when it comes down to it consistency and perseverance are required to solve the difficult problems we have left to solve and to truly innovate. The only major edge that academia has over industry these days is these two qualities thanks to the merger practices of the large pharma. It is thus ironic to see Pfizer try and regain such experience on the cheap after destroying so much.

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15. dvizard on July 22, 2011 4:21 PM writes...

I don't disbelieve in the "proximity leads to progress" idea in the first place. However, it is curious that the same decision makers decide to outsource research to China. Makes that idea seem a bit vacuous.

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16. SFSD girl on July 22, 2011 4:31 PM writes...

Had to do a double take at the mentioning of Sioux Falls--not many people have heard of it! I grew up there, moved away as fast as I could. Now I work in a building that is bumping elbows with Pfizer. Have to agree, Derek, biotech just won't survive in Sioux Falls like Citibank has.

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17. okemist on July 22, 2011 6:04 PM writes...

Hamilton MT makes Sioux Falls look like an urban center and yet GSK still bought Corixa and keep the facility there.

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18. imatter on July 22, 2011 7:05 PM writes...

I don't think proximity will help Pfizer. It's a solution to a problem that they never had.

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19. Anonymous on July 22, 2011 7:53 PM writes...

Proximity does not necessarily help at all. Funding interesting research - that has a chance. Researchers just aren't going to give you their ideas and data without coughing up some money - even if you are right next door. Proximity only lowers the travel costs for due diligence activities.

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20. drug_hunter on July 22, 2011 10:03 PM writes...

My impression is that the Pfizer lab in Cambridge hasn't gotten much benefit from being surrounded by Harvard, MIT, etc. Certainly they've changed missions many times and their publication record doesn't suggest a lot of fruitful collaborations with local academia. Anyone with more knowledge care to comment?

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21. MichaelisMenten on July 23, 2011 5:36 AM writes...

High hopes for the GSK-Wellcome Trust led science park @Stevenage, UK. Any comment from anyone on how it's doing/likely to do?

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22. Rick on July 23, 2011 7:52 AM writes...

Ironic that this is essentially the Wellcome Trust's second try at this sort of thing (at least). Pete Seeger said it best:
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

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23. Ed on July 24, 2011 2:48 AM writes...

#21 - Unless GSK have dedicated a large pot of money to fund early stage ideas at this site (including discovery chemistry and biology), I suspect that it will become populated by repurposing/reposition companies who will actually do a minimum of R and a lot of D - companies who can access capital and VC markets at the present time.

Maybe that's the intention, but as outlined above, I don't think that's what they need. If they (GSK) want to externalize discovery research by near-sourcing, then they seem to think that they won't have to put up lots of cash to support it. Without the cash and the long term commitment to support externalized, innovative small molecule and antibody discovery, this project is doomed to failure.

There seems to be no "Apply for Funding" link on the Catalyst website (as yet) - hopefully this doesn't indicate a piecemeal, ad hoc, disjointed company/project funding process - the opposite of what I would have thought necessary. Do I as a scientist want to spend all my time hunting for money? Make it easy to support the best ideas, and this initiative might just work.

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24. newnickname on July 25, 2011 6:20 AM writes...

@6 - I know that bar, too.

In Europe, industry - academia work together MUCH more closely (faculty with joint appointments, etc.). Does it work there to make more drugs? I don't know. Two controversial (in their time) US agreements come to mind.

In 1981, Hoechst established a research center at Mass General Hospital with a few restrictive clauses. See Science, 1982, 216 (11 June 1982), 1200-1203. "The Hoechst Dept at Mass General", Barbara J. Culliton. Also Nature, etc. from around the same time.

Maybe not everyone is aware of the controversy surrounding the establishment of the Whitehead Institute in 1982. Duke had turned down the Whitehead offer and others questioned the "University - Industrial Complex" or "Academic - Industrial Complex". (Book: "Biotechnology: The Uni. - Ind. Complex", Martin Kenney, 1986.)

But to Derek's Q: My history knowledge isn't so good. Did any blockbuster drugs come out of the Hoechst Dept at MGH? Whitehead at MIT is a far cry from Pfizer at UCSF but what drugs have come from the Whitehead?

It seems to me that secure, reasonably long term (10-year?) funding of research (without the need for CONSTANT proposal submissions), even if it's just modest funding (one or two FTEs?), and whether it's in Cambridge or Podunk would go a long way towards generating quality research results that could be advanced by larger groups.

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25. Jonadab on July 25, 2011 6:50 AM writes...

> the mentioning of Sioux Falls--
> not many people have heard of it!

Sure we have. Sioux Falls is just about the most famous city in North Dakota. It's almost as well known as Yakima. (Neither is anywhere near as well known as Louisville, of course, but that's not fair. Louisville might be the second most famous city located in a "backwater" state, after Nashville, if you still count Kentucky as a backwater now that it has above-average population density.)

I was actually going to remark that Sioux Falls and Yakima and Louisville are fairly middle-of-the-road locations. If I were going to list places that would be bad choices for a pharmaceutical business to locate due to their remoteness, these wouldn't be my picks. I mean, if you're going to pick a remote location, you might as well pick one that's actually remote. Why do things by halves? Start your business in Garden, Michigan, on the north shore of Lake Michigan, so your managers alone can outnumber the local population. (Did I mention that the road east to Mackinaw is impassible in the winter?) Put your research center in Venetie, a hundred and some odd miles north of Fairbanks, accessible only by plane or snowmobile. But really, if you're going to go for all the gusto, you have to consider locations outside the US. Do any of your competitors have operations near Bilma? No? Well, then, there'll be no competition for local talent!

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26. DWJ on July 25, 2011 10:46 AM writes...

"Proximity leads to progress; this promises to be a very strong liaison"
Translation:" We have absolutely no idea what we are doing, so we can put a lab either in CA or on Venus. Most of the board didn't know where Venus was, so we chose CA. Although it doesn't really matter, since it will be closed in a year."

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27. Scott on July 25, 2011 11:59 AM writes...

Just a correction for Johnadab and others who have not been to the great midwest... Sioux Falls is not a famous city in North Dakota, because it is in South Dakota!

When you get a chance to visit ND, I recommend Bismarck (the capital), Fargo (woodchippers, eh?) and Rugby (the geographical center of North America).

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28. milkshake on July 25, 2011 12:32 PM writes...

Collaboration of this sort with Pfizer helped to derail Scripps drug discovery projects in Florida. The industry money came with strings attached - with a hefty obligation to develop new assays. As it turned out, the biologists who were supposed to support internal drug discovery instead preferred to work for Pfizer (I suppose because of the industry contacts, more interesting research assignments and more secure funding) and the top management was oblivious to the fact that assay development critical to in-house effort has been lagging behind and even routine testing queue was sometimes getting several weeks long. The Scripps FL Translational Research Institute fiasco (between 2005 and 2009) was mostly caused by the gross mismanagement at the top level but the Pfizer collaboration helped to misdirect the focus and resources.

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