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Life After Pfizer: Taking a Proactive Approach

Mika Ono of News&Views had a chance to catch up with Scott Forrest, PhD, who was recently promoted to vice president for business development, to ask him about The Scripps Research Institute Department of Technology Development and its accomplishments, strategy, and direction going forward. In particular, Forrest addressed the changing landscape now that a five-year agreement with Pfizer Global Research and Development, in which the institute received payments in exchange for the option of licensing Scripps Research scientists’ discoveries, has ended.

News&Views: What has your department been focusing on lately? What are the highlights and special projects?

Scott Forrest: In a nutshell, we’ve been preparing for life after Pfizer. When Mark Crowell [now at the University of Virginia] and I came here about two and a half years ago, we had similar visions of what we wanted to accomplish and how we wanted to accomplish it. Previously, the group reactively processed documents and agreements. Our three-year goal was to transform the office from a reactive group to what we called a true business development group—one that could identify and source opportunities and manage transactions from beginning to end. And one that could, when needed, take the reins and spin a company out on its own, including the business planning, fundraising, management recruitment… the whole nine yards. That kind of group more efficiently leverages intellectual capital to help the scientists, bringing in more resources, money, and corporate collaborations. We wanted to be able to function at a high level in the event we no longer were supported by a pharma first-rights deal. It turns out members of our group has been very dedicated, we’ve worked long hours, and we’ve arrived where we wanted to be in two years instead of three. We’re very satisfied about that. In fact, we have a mission statement that I worked on when I got here in 2009 and it’s now outdated because of all we have accomplished.

Could you summarize that mission statement?

We wanted to be proactive. Part of being proactive is an attitude, but another part is operational. It requires being efficient, informed, and connected. We’ve taken a variety of steps toward those goals. To increase efficiency, we’ve updated our best practices—rolling out an on-line material transfer agreement (MTA) portal and leveraging outside resources including our internship program. We also have a partnership with the Rady School of Management at UCSD so we can use teams of MBAs to work on startup company opportunities. We’ve been getting more efficient and operating with the mindset of being a business unit of The Scripps Research Institute, which means carefully considering how we value a deal and how hard we negotiate. We are serious about license compliance (making sure people pay what they owe), and we are tougher with our outside attorneys to decrease costs…. It has been very effective. Finally, we always strive to be well-informed and well-connected regarding the pharma/biotech industry, so we can recognize and act on commercial opportunities. To that end, we have increased our network locally and nationally, building a rolodex of companies and investors.

We have also achieved a couple short-term goals. One was getting the click chemistry licensing program off the ground. [Click chemistry is a method developed by Scripps Research Professor K. Barry Sharpless and colleagues to generate compounds quickly and reliably by joining small units together.] In the eight years before Mark and I arrived, the institution had done one click chemistry deal for $30,000. In the two and a half years since, we’ve done 10 or 11 deals and received more than $1 million dollars. Now we’re in the black even after substantial patent expenditures. It has been exciting to see that come around. More importantly, click chemistry is being used to make one drug currently in clinical trials, and we hope to announce a second very soon.

Our relationship with Pfizer has been another major project. We have recently been working with Pfizer to re-engineer our collaboration following the expiration of our first-rights deal at the end of 2011. Another important part of our alliance efforts has been working with Michael [Marletta, new Scripps Research president] to craft our five-year approach to global partnerships in an era where large first-rights deals are increasingly unlikely.

So the landscape has changed? It’s no longer realistic to expect one company to pay for the privilege of choosing from all the inventions coming out of the institute?

That’s not happening. So we’ve put together a number of thoughts based on hard data and conversations with companies and we have a fairly good idea of what we would like to do. We have a four-point plan.

First, we would like to have a few smaller, focused deals. An immunology or a chemistry collaboration that could marshal resources across a number of labs, bringing in some much-needed specific funding and maybe a bit of general funding would be one example. There’s potential for that kind of arrangement with medium-sized pharmaceutical companies that have an acute need to supplement their research and we are having some of those discussions now.

Florida is also large part of our plan. We’re working on a similar five-year strategic approach to partnering on the Florida campus. Key to that approach is securing one or two significant high-throughput screening collaborations there.

In addition, we have realized that for some time now we have make poor commercial use of all the research reagents we have on campus. We’ve done a poor job monetizing this particular asset because each individual reagent deal is small in dollar value and it’s almost not worth it unless one party is takes the reins of all the projects together. So our third objective is to attract a “preferred partner” to handle reagent commercialization for Scripps Research.

Lastly, on the spin-out side, we hope to be spinning out more companies now that we don’t have a broad first-rights deal. I would love to partner with a big pharma company and a venture capitalist to advance platform technologies [broadly applicable technologies to discover drugs] and test drive an idea or two. That idea makes so much sense to us based on our long tradition of successfully launching drug discovery platforms.

I think we’ve got the right personnel, the right attitude, the right infrastructure, and the right know-how to be able to take this strategy and execute it as a team.

It sounds like the end of the Pfizer first-rights deal is an opportunity as well as a challenge.

I think that’s exactly right. It’s a short-term challenge and long-term opportunity. If you look at how we ended up doing what we have over the last two or three decades, it seems to me we’ve stumbled into a nice mix. We have big pharma partners providing funding in the short-term and we have startup companies whose teams put a lot of energy into projects that can pay off over the long-term.

We have looked at the fact that a lot of the drugs that have made it to the market or late-stage clinical trials originally went from Scripps Research to a small company. Vyndagel® [recently approved in Europe for the treatment of Familial Amyloid Polyneuropathy] was developed by a startup company and acquired by Pfizer. Humira® [a blockbuster drug for rheumatoid arthritis] and Benlysta® [the first new drug for lupus in 50 years] were both Cambridge Antibody Technology Company projects. CAT itself was originally a startup company out of the UK. Surfaxin [a remarkably effective treatment for infant respiratory distress syndrome] was developed by another small company, Discovery Labs. I could go on down the list, including all the CovX drugs. [CovX, now part of Pfizer, is a biotechnology company developing long-lasting therapeutics]. Most of the drugs currently being tested in humans—more than 90 percent of our pipeline—were originally developed by small, privately held companies.

Would like to comment on the entrepreneurial spirit at Scripps Research?

Of course, that’s why I’m here. I decided I was leaving academic licensing about three years ago while at the University of North Carolina. I felt that I had learned what I could at that job and had done what I could do within that rather ivory-tower environment. I was offered a job in Singapore that was really interesting—half time at the national university building a tech transfer program and half time at an Asian Venture Capital fund a friend of mine started. I had plane tickets booked; we had an apartment picked out. We were two weeks away from leaving when Mark [Crowell] called me and said, “Come work at Scripps.” Many people in San Diego don’t understand the brand name Scripps has across the country … It was powerful enough to make me call time out on some pretty interesting career plans already in motion to come check out the campus and see for myself.

That was based on the reputation of Scripps Research as an entrepreneurial place?

Absolutely. As an entrepreneurial place, Scripps has a reputation and a track record. You can look down the list of companies, drugs, research papers… The number of Science and Nature papers coming out of the institute is off the charts. It’s incredible. I’m still impressed every week when I see these papers. First and foremost, the raw science coming out of Scripps is absolutely top-notch. Plus our ties to industry and entrepreneurial spirit make this a great place to do what I do. Many researchers on campus performing their research have the attitude of “I want to see this work impact human health and the way to do that is to get a drug in a clinic and the way to do that is partner with industry in some fashion.” There’s a recognition of the necessity of a corporate partnership to impact human health. Doing what I do, it was a major factor that a lot of folks on campus were already wired to think like that. Our track record with industry and with the venture capital community made it even more exciting—exciting enough to abandon plans to go to Singapore. So that’s a long way of articulating the power of the brand name and track record. For me, it was like coming to a playground. We have a great time every day at work. The folks in our department are almost always among the last to leave the building because we enjoy what we do and this is one of the best places to do it.

Do you have any messages to the Scripps Research faculty you want to get out there?

I’d like to let the faculty know that we are striving to be frequent and effective communicators, something that will take on much greater importance now that Pfizer doesn’t have the first right to partner with us on every project. Exploring the additional industrial opportunities will take a lot more coordination and therefore communication. At the end of the day, we have a very human-driven business. There’s no text book on how to do it; it’s largely dependent upon personal experience, a rolodex, and knowing how to communicate effectively. Our job sounds complicated but at its core it’s quite simple. Just calling an investigator to say what’s going on with an agreement is important and it can be beneficial keeping everybody in the loop; we forget that sometimes because we are human beings ourselves, but I am reinforcing that message continually. PIs should know that my door is literally and figuratively always open. Want to talk about something? Call me. Whether it’s good, bad, ugly, whatever. Our raw material is the science this campus turns out. Without the researchers, we literally can do nothing, be nothing. So communication is a big theme for me.

The other message to the campus is related to the strategic vision of our office. We want to be the equivalent in the licensing community to what Scripps Research scientists are in the research community. That’s what they deserve. That’s what we think we’re capable of. As part of that, we are taking a more active role in companies and deals. The more we can join forces early on with the faculty the better.

And do you have messages for investors and the larger community?

The major message is that things are going to be a little bit different post-Pfizer. It’s fair to say there will be more opportunities. We are always on the hunt for folks who want to have a high-impact basic research collaboration with one of the best academic groups around. 

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Vice President for Business Development Scott Forrest sees the end of the institute’s agreement with Pfizer as a short-term challenge and long-term opportunity. (Photo by Laura Walker.)