Partnering priorities: Do your homework, tell your story

You can feel the energy, a mixture of tension and opportunity, at any stop on the biopharma partnering circuit. CEOs and other team members move from meeting to meeting, appointment to appointment, making new contacts at some, renewing acquaintances in others, updating their story.

Many will give formal presentations at gatherings like the BIO International Convention or the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in 15- or 30-minute slots. Equally important, if not more so, they schedule one-on-one sessions with potential investors or prospective partners in curtained-off meeting rooms or convene less formal get-togethers in coffee shops and hotel lobbies.

“My mission today and for the rest of 2017 is to make investors more aware of our story,” said one, David Cory, president and CEO of Eiger BioPharmaceuticals, based in Palo Alto, Calif.

We caught up with Cory and three other leaders of companies as they went through their paces at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s CEO & Investor Conference earlier this year. All four companies we talked to – two based in France and two in the U.S. – had speaking slots at the meeting. All had done their homework, researching companies, investors and other contacts and had jam-packed partnering diaries.

Alexis Peyroles, COO in charge of finance, business development and operations at OSE Immunotherapeutics, said that an important part of participating in the annual New York meeting, which draws heavy interest from Wall Street, was to boost the awareness of the Nantes, France-based company in the U.S. OSE is listed on Euronext in Paris.

“There are always two objectives,” he said in a follow-up phone interview after the conference. “The first one is to raise your visibility and meet U.S. investors and for them to know that we exist. We are here. And, secondly, to meet potential partners and to meet pharma companies. So it is always finance and business development goals.”

Cory of Eiger said that while buyers of the Nasdaq-listed company’s stock were likely drawn by its lead asset, Sarasar (lonafarnib), which is in phase II for hepatitis delta virus, BIO CEO was an opportunity to “make investors more aware of the breadth of our pipeline.” The company has four additional programs – pegylated-interferon-lambda, also in hepatitis delta, and three others aimed at orphan targets, post-bariatric hypoglycemia, pulmonary arterial hypertension and lymphedema.

Pierre Belichard, CEO of Paris-based Enterome Bioscience, also sought specifically to engage with the financial community at BIO CEO. It was important to explain how the company’s approach differs from what investors may expect to see in the microbiome space, he said. He showed a colorful slide during his talk that illustrated his point.  Most companies, including industry leaders in the space, are developing “bugs as drugs,” he said, meaning therapies that harness live bacteria; Enterome’s approach is “drugs from bugs,” developing therapies based on targets in the gut microbiome.

“The main goal for me was to explain to the financial community that we are different and the kind of drugs that we are developing are not difficult to understand for the pharma industry -- indeed are easier to develop than live bacteria,” he said in a follow-up phone interview. “You have multiple ways of trying to tackle the diseases that relate to the microbiome,” he added.

Enterome has a FimH antagonist program that entered phase I earlier this year in Crohn’s disease and two discovery-stage programs, one in Crohn’s and the other in ulcerative colitis/irritable bowel syndrome, in partnership with Johnson & Johnson and Takeda, respectively. For Belichard, it was also important to share with investors the validation implied by those signed agreements, and another with Bristol-Myers Squibb in oncology.

Balancing expertise and financing

Companies use meetings like BIO CEO and BIO International as sounding boards for fine-tuning company strategy, weighing, for example, the wisdom of taking an asset all the way through to commercialization or teaming up with a strategic partner.

“It ultimately comes down to me to a balance between expertise and financing challenges,” said David Giljohann, CEO of Exicure.

The Skokie, Ill.-based company has several programs emanating from its spherical nucleic acid architecture. Four are focused in dermatology. The farthest along, targeting psoriasis, has completed a phase I study. Exicure has two preclinical immuno-oncology programs and research that it has not specified in ophthalmology, respiratory and gastro-intestinal. 

Although its lead compound is progressing in partnership with Purdue Pharma, Giljohann said the company’s strategy is to retain full control of its other assets in dermatology.

“Other areas that we are looking at – oncology, for example, respiratory, we’re now starting to look at ophthalmology, those are harder things for a small biotech company to envision taking all the way through to commercialization,” he said.

With multiple programs to balance, Giljohann said discussions at meetings like BIO also are important to set priorities on which to attack first. “It’s a lot of me collecting feedback from folks about what the targets of interest are so constantly asking potential partners or existing relationships that we have what they see as the next wave of therapeutic targets, indications of interest that they would think our technology applies to,” he said.

Corey said Eiger’s goal now is to complete phase II across all four therapeutic areas, and make further decisions from there. “The good news is that we feel we have the resources and cash sufficient to generate solid phase II data such that, if the data are positive, we should be able to start considering strategic options later this year or early in 2018.”

Peyroles said OSE expects a phase III readout for its lead asset, Tedopi, for non-small-cell lung cancer in 2018. The company has an immune checkpoint inhibitor in preclinical development, as well. OSE also has two programs in autoimmune diseases, one in partnership with J&J’s Janssen Biotech unit that has completed a phase I trial and another at the pre-clinical stage, with Servier.

As companies look to differentiate themselves, to draw potential partners to their assets, for OSE, Peyroles said, more than anything, that meant highlighting the company’s scientific team, and its deep expertise in immunology.

The assessment process goes both ways, he added. It is critical for the smaller company to find not just any partner, but the right partner, to ensure that its asset doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

That means, of course, understanding the potential partner’s therapeutic expertise and its international reach. But also, Peyroles said, “It’s very important to have discussions with their team about what position your product will have in their portfolio.”

Getting ready for the BIO International Convention June 19-22 in San Diego? Clarivate Analytics is teaming up with the Biotechnology Innovation Organization on a pre-BIO webinar titled “Applying Competitive Intelligence to Navigate the Changing Disease Landscape.”

Join David Dunn, Clarivate’s U.S. Practice Lead and Scientific Advisor for Portfolio & Licensing, and Willie Reaves, Senior Manager, Partner Relations at BIO, on May 16. They will use neurogenerative disease as a use case to demonstrate the critical intelligence and analysis needed to be first-in-class or best-in-class for a therapy area.

More information and register