The biggest pharma companies increasingly seem to feel as if they need universities nearby. We've talked about this trend before, and Pfizer's current strategy makes it quite clear.
Partnerships between industry and academia, of course, aren’t new. Yet Pfizer, Sanofi, Merck & Co. (MRK) and other drug companies are putting a new twist on the arrangement by stepping up their level of collaboration with universities. In the case of Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company is embedding operations in Boston, San Francisco, New York and San Diego, often in the very same buildings where famed academic institutions have labs.
“No matter how much money you have, nothing compares to the innovation going on out in the world,” said Jose Carlos Gutierrez-Ramos, the director of the [new Pfizer lab in Cambridge], in an interview. “We want to be here, integrated into this fabric.”
Right. As I said earlier, I can definitely see the benefit to putting your research center in Cambridge or South San Francisco as opposed to Duluth or Reno. There are a lot of qualified people in the area who might be interested in moving over to join you, for one thing, and for small companies, that's where the (knowledgeable) money tends to hang out. But I still wonder about this cozy-up-to-the-academic-luminaries approach. Pfizer, for example, is making a big deal out of collaborating with Harvard, and their vision of how this is going to work doesn't quite fit into reality as I've come to know it:
Gutierrez-Ramos said he is trying to create an atmosphere at the lab where outside researchers easily come and go, and Pfizer’s scientists visit neighboring academicians on their turf.
Pharmaceutical companies, which historically are highly secretive about their work because of competition, need to be willing to take more risks in the future, he said, creating access to its inner sanctums to develop drugs earlier.
What Pfizer offers academic researchers are “extraordinary” resources for drug development that nearby university labs can’t match, said Harvard’s [Hal] Dvorak.
The problem with all this my-lab-is-your-lab stuff is that money gets involved. Don't think Harvard doesn't appreciate that, either - anyone who imagines a big pharma company snookering the unworldly Harvard Square luftmenschen should go try to do a deal with the university's technology transfer people. Undervaluing the worth of its own research is not one of Harvard's problems. And matters of intellectual property get involved, too pesky little matters that lead to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce style lawsuits. No, I have trouble imagining people breezing in and out of each other's labs like some sort of drug-discovery effort set in the Seinfeld universe.
What's interesting is that stories like the one I've linked to say that the drug companies are doing this because money is tight, and they need new revenue streams - thus the collaborations. And the universities are doing it because money is tight, and they need new revenue streams. The only way money is going to come out of these deals in order to fulfill both those expectations is for new drugs to be discovered and marketed, and that's a ten-to-fifteen year process. For now, the money is flowing from the drug industry towards academia.
Let's hope that the success rate of the targets improves. Don't get me wrong - I think that collaborations with academia can be useful, and I'm all for both groups getting to understand each other more. But I wonder if people are building expectations up a bit too much, too soon.