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Why Denali Raised A $217 Million Financing Round: Not Just ‘Because It Could’

On May 14, when venture capitalists and sovereign wealth funds announced the largest first round venture financing in the history of biotech, $217 million for Denali Therapeutics, my “bubble alarm” went off. On its face, this is exactly the kind of extravagant financing that happens at the peak of a market. It felt a bit like the IPO of all over again.

But once I got over my initial shock, I realized that the financing, while risky, in fact makes logical sense from several different vantage points. I came up with three reasons – beyond “because it could” – why the company raised so much money.

Denali will use what it says are novel approaches to find treatments for heretofore nearly untreatable neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Denali certainly has the pedigree for its ambition to be taken seriously. The team members announced so far are all superstars from Genentech. The investors include Fidelity, Flagship and Arch, as well as the Alaska Permanent Fund.

Here is a teaser version of my four reasons that this round could become so big.

1. Prior success with a similar strategy. Case in point: Juno.

2. Prior success at Genentech.

3. “If there is money on the table…”

4. It’s the biology, stupid.

To read the details about why this financing became so massive and to learn more about Denali’s challenges and its strategy for overcoming them, read my latest post on Forbes here:

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Can Pharma Conquer the Consumer the Way Apple Did? This App Might Help

By Steve Dickman

CEO, CBT Advisors

Apps are moving much closer to delivering real therapeutic benefit, as I wrote last month on Forbes. But life science venture capital  investors of any stripe – financial or corporate — are reluctant to invest in app developers. For most venture capitalists (VCs), anything you can buy in an app store is, with rare exceptions, not yet a “doable deal.”

Simon Meier of Roche Venture Fund

Simon Meier of Roche Venture Fund

Then, earlier this month, I noticed that a life sciences venture capitalist I know, Simon Meier, a corporate VC from Roche Venture Fund, had just invested in a $4.8 million round raised by mySugr, an Austrian app developer that has produced some popular apps to help both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics manage their disease. According to TechCrunch, mySugr has attracted over 230,000 registered users to its diabetes management apps and web-based educational tools. Roche Venture Fund had previously invested in Foundation Medicine, an investment which is turning out phenomenally well due to the billion-dollar majority acquisition of the company in January by none other than Roche itself.

In my latest post on Forbes, I show what mySugr is doing; describe what the success case looks like (lucrative but not in a drug-like way); and give a few reasons why it was attractive to the fund, which seems to be one of the only life science venture groups investing in apps (two more are here and here) and which was in fact the only life science investor in a round otherwise composed of IT investors. Then I share my take on what this type of deal, especially if it is repeated, might mean for the pharmaceutical industry.

Read the rest of my post here:

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Coming to an App Store Near You: Drug-Like Interventions

By Steve Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors

A note to my readers: As of this week, I have been made a contributor to Forbes and many of my pieces will appear there. Thanks for your continued readership and please keep the comments and questions coming on Forbes, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Although replacing pharmaceuticals with apps still sounds like science fiction, it will be just a few years before getting medical treatment by downloading an app from the Apple App Store or from Google Play will begin to seem routine. All the pieces are coming together: startups are working on real medical challenges, apps are showing clinical utility and a path is emerging to approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The only things missing at this point are definitive proof and, oh yes, venture money. At a panel that I put together at Biotech Showcase in San Francisco last month (panel video here), three startups showed how they are tackling both the lack of funds as well as some real health issues: smoking cessation, attention deficit disorders and migraine. It is instructive that each of these companies sees peer-reviewed, controlled clinical trials as a must. A consensus seems to be emerging that in order to occupy the more clinically useful – and more highly remunerated – realm of “apps-as-drugs,” the winners will have to do much more than just monitoring.

To read the rest of my post and see which companies are emerging as leaders in the apps-as-drugs field, click the link or copy-paste it:

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BIO CEO 2015 Conference Preview

By Steve Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors

Feb. 3, 2015

One conference that is a highlight for me every year is BIO CEO in New York. This year’s edition arrives next Monday Feb. 9, concluding on Tuesday Feb. 10. One of many reasons I like it so much is that so many fund managers attend. That makes for some excellent Q&A and chatter in the hallways of the Waldorf.

BIO CEO2013_205x100_Thumbnail

If you can get there, I highly encourage it. If not, read the tweets (hashtag is #BIOCEO15) and other media coverage.

The sessions I am most looking forward to include these:

  • “Emerging Trends in Deal Structures,” Mon. Feb. 9 at 9:30am. Panelists will discuss recent trends in both performance milestones and earnouts as well as swaps between pharmaceutical companies of therapeutic assets. Excellent panelists include:
    • Bruce Booth, Partner, Atlas Venture
    • David H. Donabedian, PhD, Vice President, Head of Ventures & Early Stage Collaborations, AbbVie
    • Randall Mills, PhD, President and CEO, California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)
    • Adelene Perkins, CEO, Infinity Pharmaceuticals
    • Mark Schoenebaum, MD, Managing Director, Evercore ISI

It will be especially interesting to hear from Randall Mills, who is ushering CIRM into a hectic phase of clinical trial funding after that state agency’s first few years funding mostly early-stage research. And it is always fun to hear from Mark Schoenebaum. I half-expect him to steal the show…

  • “Getting Ahead of Ebola and Other Infectious Threats—Overturning Assumptions,” Mon. Feb. 9 at 11am. The panel will discuss how companies are trying to bring new vaccines and therapies to market faster, with implications likely for a wide array of diseases. Ebola was on the front page of the New York Times on Sunday with good news, finally: the recent outbreak seems to be ebbing. However, as much as the topic will predictably fade, there will certainly be new outbreaks of Ebola and other emerging diseases and actual strategies from government and industry have been in short supply. I am glad that there is a representative of the Gates Foundation on this panel alongside some biotech luminaries to bring the much-needed non-profit perspective. Panelists:
    • Ripley Ballou, MD, Head of Ebola Vaccine Research, GSK
    • Chris Garabedian, President & CEO, Sarepta Therapeutics
    • Peter Khoury, PhD, Senior Program Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
    • Guillaume Leroy, PhD, Head of Dengue Vaccines, Sanofi Pasteur
    • Clifford J. Stocks, CEO, Theraclone Sciences
  • “Digital Health—Early Successes for Investors and Biotech R&D Productivity,” Mon. Feb. 9 at 3pm. This session will feature perspectives from both financial and corporate as well as from experts who have broad exposure to digital health investments. One focus will be how digital health companies are improving R&D productivity for biotechs. I had panelist Julie Papanek on my “apps as drugs” panel at Biotech Showcase (the link will take you to a video of the full panel), which took place in January. There, Julie helped me learn about what VCs are doing (and not doing) in the space. Panelists:
    • Angela Bakker Lee, PhD, Partner, VP Healthcare, Global Business Services, IBM
    • Donald Jones, Chairman, Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance
    • Julie Papanek, Principal, Canaan Partners
    • Ryan Pierce, Entrepreneur in Residence, Rock Health
  • VC Funding Report for biotech. Dave Thomas from BIO Industry Analysis will be unveiling his new biotech VC Funding Report. This first-of-its-kind study looks at where venture financing has been put to work in terms of disease area and novelty of research over the last decade (five years pre and post economic crisis). Results are broken down across fourteen disease areas, including oncology, cardiovascular, neurology, psychiatry and more.

There are also some high-profile hour-long “fireside chats.” For example, on Tuesday morning, Gilead’s John Milligan will be followed by Alnylam’s John Maraganore. I wonder if anyone else remembers that Gilead started out as an antisense therapeutics company! Then on Tuesday afternoon, a chat with Peter Greenleaf from Sucampo will be followed by Ron Cohen of Acorda and then by Ian Read of Pfizer. I will try to attend many of these. Reading the CEOs’ body language and hearing their jokes will help me interpret both company commentary as well as investor sentiment in the months to come.

In between these plenary sessions, there are over a hundred company presentations. I hope to see you there.

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Why have only a few European biotechs made it through the IPO window?

By Steve Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors

Posted to Boston Biotech Watch and to the Partnering360 blog

If the recent falloff in biotech IPOs continues, then many European biotechs would seem to have missed the longest, widest IPO window in the history of the industry. Why did a few European biotechs manage to go public (on NASDAQ, Euronext and the London Stock Exchange) in this window when most others did not succeed or even try?

In recent advisory work for about a dozen companies at various stages of the IPO process, five of which went public, and at a panel discussion organized by your correspondent and the EBD Group on the topic of European biotechs having US IPOs at last month’s BioPharm America conference, I identified three major trends contributing to the paucity of European IPOs:

  • Lack of access to EU capital for EU companies;
  • Absence of interest from (US) crossover investors in EU companies (maybe because they were not asked to invest); and
  • The conservative attitude of European IPO investors.

Sorting out the reasons for this phenomenon is important because of the long-term implications for the biotech industry in Europe. I’ll circle back to that larger question after looking at the data on some representative European IPOs and examining the reasons more European biotechs have not made it to an IPO during this window.

In Table 1 below I put together a sampling of eight European biotech and life sciences companies that pulled off IPOs in 2013 and 2014, their locations, their IPO dates and the amount of capital they raised.

Performance of some IPOs by European biotechs.

Table 1: Performance of some IPOs by European biotechs. Bold: CBT Advisors clients

Some observations:

  • Companies came from several European countries.
  • They went public on several stock exchanges.
  • Some of them raised a considerable amount of money (though typically less if they went public in Europe).
  • Most of these are therapeutics companies (similar to the US IPO crop).
  • With one dramatic exception, the stocks have traded down.

By comparison, according to data from an industry insider we know, this group of European companies have raised about the same on average as US biotechs that have gone public on NASDAQ in 2013/14 – $68.5 million for these six vs. $64 million to $70 million in the comparable crop of US-based biotechs. The trading down tells me that, while investor interest was just as strong initially for the European biotechs as for their US counterparts, the European companies either did not have the news flow or (my hypothesis) they lacked the “true believers” in their stories that would have been required to keep prices up in the months after their IPO.

Venture investors like panelist Rafaèle Tordjman, a general partner with Paris-based VC fund Sofinnova Partners, recalled that there have always been such challenges for European companies. “Our portfolio company Movetis went public on Euronext at the same time [in 2009] and at the same stage as Ironwood Pharmaceuticals but the valuation was three times less!” To be fair, she continued in an email, Movetis, later acquired by Shire, owned only European rights to its gastroenterology product whereas Ironwood owned worldwide rights. But the valuation gap still seemed disproportionate.

What is striking is the number of US companies that have gone public on NASDAQ: About 70, by my count, versus just six European companies. According to OECD, in 2013 there were 2,954 “dedicated” biotechnology companies in the United States and 2,654 in Europe. “Dedicated” firms are those that devote at least 75% of their production of goods and services, or R&D, to biotechnology. Even if these numbers were off by a large amount based on different definitions or stages of biotechs, and even taking into account the superb performance of the US stock market across the board as compared with the market in recession-prone Europe, it would still seem that a number of envious European biotechs are looking across the pond and wondering why their star has not yet risen. Here are my three answers:

Lack of capital from local investors

Despite the huge increase in investment interest in biotech in the United States from both specialist biotech investors as well as generalists, the sector has not gained wide enough appeal yet among either category of European investors to provide sustained support for a European biotech industry on either US or European exchanges. On top of that, what has happened lately is a wave of specialist support for US biotechs, which have been able to go public without much generalist backing at all.

In part, the lack of support in Europe for European biotechs is in part a function of scarcity, said Philip Astley-Sparke, a Venture Partner at the top-tier Dutch VC fund Forbion. He also happens to be President, US, of UniQure, one of the successful US IPO candidates. “Historically, LSE biotech listings did not get done unless generalists were involved to a large degree. In the States, no generalists are required.  These UK generalists are unlikely to be diversifying into US biotech. Hence, a few UK biotech IPOs may get done and then a single disappointment sends the generalists running for cover. This makes the market less stable. By contrast, a few blow ups on NASDAQ is just noise.”

In any event, the total amounts raised by biotechs in both IPOs and follow-ons combined have turned up in Europe but they still lag US deals by a wide margin (Figure 1).

Biotech deal volumes (cumulative) 2004-2014: Europe lags

Figure 1: Europe lags in volume. Data courtesy Dealogic. Figure courtesy FT.

Some reasons vary country by country. Germany, in particular, has lain fallow for many years in the aftermath of the dot-com boom. German tech stocks have come roaring back but there has not been a single biotech IPO on the Frankfurt exchange. Only one Germany biotech company, Affimed Therapeutics, an antibody therapeutics company in Heidelberg, had a NASDAQ IPO in 2013-14. It raised $56 million.

In other European countries such as the Netherlands and Great Britain, there are quite a few high-quality biotech companies so windows might someday reopen. There are signs of a thaw in Switzerland, where both institutional and retail investors were burned by disappointing clinical results from companies like Addex and Cytos. On September 23, the day after the panel discussion took place, Zurich-area biotech Molecular Partners announced that it was filing for a blockbuster $134 million IPO by the end of the year on the Swiss exchange SIX.

But none of the European biotechs I know would be likely to choose an EU over a US IPO if current conditions prevail. If the wave of IPOs that hit NASDAQ were to later reach Europe’s shores after it hit NASDAQ, this would be about the time for it to happen, but, with the exception of that one big-ticket Swiss IPO attempt, there is little sign of a biotech boom on Euronext or other exchanges.

In fact, on October 21, just before this post went to press, Molecular Partners pulled its IPO due to “market conditions.” “Whenever Wall Street starts coughing, Europe gets pneumonia,” was how one European biotech industry insider characterized that reversal.

Missing crossover investors

For those who have not encountered them, crossover investors, mostly US-based, have been driving the surge in biotech investment for some time now. This is a big change from the 1990s and early 2000s, when many pre-IPO investors, including venture capitalists, were eager to “flip” their shares immediately post-IPO. That period ended abruptly in around 2003-2004. What has happened lately is really the opposite. Savvy crossover funds jam-packed with PhDs and MDs are getting in just before the IPO with the goal of getting a bite of the company at a better valuation than they would get at the IPO. The same investors then typically buy in the IPO, then hold for clinical data. That is, the US crossover investors are not investing in the biotech as a non-public entity in order to turn it into a public entity that is now liquid and “flippable” but rather to turn it into a public entity in which they can share in and reap the rewards for good data (once their lockups have come off and they are allowed to sell shares).

It’s not that Europe has none of these deep-pocketed, risk-loving investors. Some have played quite strongly in the recent boom – some funds in Switzerland, Polar Capital in London and Omega Funds in London come to mind. But the diversity of the crossover investing sector, including mutual funds and some VC-like funds as well as traditional long-only hedge funds, and the sheer number of funds in the United States dominate the industry. Indeed, Omega has begun to invest more frequently out of its Boston office and considers itself more of a global investor. At least twenty US funds, some of them able to deploy many hundreds of millions of dollars in capital, have been extraordinarily active over the past two to three years.

There is no law preventing European management teams from pitching the same crossover investors that their US counterparts are pitching. But the logistical challenges are apparent. Ultimately, said Astley-Sparke, “a European company coming to the US has to be here a year in advance, doing non-deal road show work, getting in front of the crossover investors and preferably doing a crossover round. That [crossover round], in my experience, is almost a pre-requisite for being taken public by one of the larger banks.” Tordjman concurred that for Sofinnova’s portfolio company ProQR, a Netherlands-based therapeutics company focused on cystic fibrosis, the crossover round was very helpful.

Panelist Dan Grau, the President of UK-based Heptares Therapeutics, a highly regarded, still-private drug discovery and development company with management located in both London and Boston, concurred. “The pathway of doing a crossover financing to lead you to an IPO is clearly the preferred pathway,” he said. The caveat for companies, said Tordjman, is that in order to access all that capital in the United States, sometime companies have to make sacrifices in their valuation. “It’s an equilibrium,” she said. Lining up the preferences of existing investor against the valuation wishes of new investors requires careful thought and planning.

It will be a while before such a fund group can emerge in Europe. Some of the US-based crossover investors are part of decades-old fund families (e.g. Fidelity). Others among the seven thousand hedge funds in the United States are the specialists focusing specifically on pre-IPO biotech. It will almost certainly require a pretty large crop of European biotech IPOs that turn into long-term success stories for an investor pool like this to be replicated in Europe, if it ever is.

“What are you selling, the promise or the actuality?”

The final factor that is holding Europe back is more of a cultural one. US and European investors think they are buying different things and value companies accordingly. European investors want to see more data; US investors are more interested in the “sex and violence,” as Astley-Sparke put it in an email, that accompany earlier-stage companies. Grau summed it up nicely on the panel: “For US investors, there is a greater appetite for something that has potential and promise but may not have shown its data, may not have become actual yet. One doesn’t see exactly the same kind of fever on the European side, which sometimes be a bit more conservative in looking for the evidence in hand, especially for therapeutics, that you have crossed a risk threshold. So that is a potential dividing line. The reception we have as a Phase 1 stage clinical company with a substantial preclinical pipeline on Wall Street, whether we are talking to the buy side or the bankers, is very intense. They see the prospect of a very interesting data flow coming soon.”

US investors do occasionally invest in EU companies such as Innate Pharma and GenFit, both in France, says Otello Stampacchia, a Partner with Omega Funds. “Typically,” he says, “these investors need to see a clear value proposition (e.g. when there is more attractive pricing of assets in European companies) as well as a presence in a very topical space – immuno-oncology for Innate, NASH for GenFit.”

What hangs in the balance for the European biotech industry is more than just the return rates for some biotech VCs or the valuations of a few biotech companies, as important as those aspects absolutely are for the readers of this blog. IPOs these days are financing events rather than exit opportunities. This is consistent with the “buy-and-hold” approach that most crossover investors are taking now with most therapeutics company shares they own. But then what is the endgame? For many companies developing exciting new therapeutics, that will be acquisition by existing biotech players. Biogen Idec found its high-flying dimethyl fumarate product Tecfidera in a European biotech. Amgen snapped up Micromet and BioVex, both of which moved part of their operations to the United States prior to acquisition. Amgen kept a research facility open in Munich but the companies otherwise were lost as sources for new ideas, entrepreneurs and capital in Europe. Other such examples are bound to follow.

As I see it, what is at stake is Europe’s ability to build IPOable companies and fund them beyond the first good dataset. What makes a place a good biotech hub is well-known to us in the biotech nexus of Boston: Durable, lasting sustainable companies generating products, revenues, returns, innovation, ecosystems and spinouts. If the companies are all getting acquired – nipped in the bud, so to speak – such an ecosystem does not arise. If Europe wants to have a sustainable biotech industry, it doesn’t want all the companies acquired, at least not before there is enough value in the company and its team that it can create spinoffs and get them funded. On the other hand, if I’m a VC shareholder, I want and need them to get acquired.

Panelist Sinclair Dunlop, the Founder and Managing Partner of Epidarex Capital, an Edinburgh-based VC fund, agreed that this is a challenge, but that the interests are actually aligned right now in favor of acquisition. “[As an investor], you have to make money. You’ve GOT to be able to deliver competitive financial returns to financial institutions that back the cluster in those locations. Only then have you got a shot at recycling capital and ultimately growing it. One thing we lack in certain parts of Europe is the generation of entrepreneurs who have made their mint and who are now back to recycle their cash. You don’t have that yet in enough parts of Europe.”

Meantime, Tordjman reported that DBV Technologies, a Paris-area Sofinnova portfolio company making protective immunotherapies against peanut allergies – largely a US market – had announced an hour before the panel began that it was taking the next logical step after it pulled off a successful 2012 Euronext IPO and, in September, 2014, obtained excellent Phase 2b data: it filed an F-1 with the SEC to go public (again) and have a dual listing on NASDAQ.

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This Therapy Could Treat Ebola – How to Get it to Those in Need?

A guest post to Boston Biotech Watch

By Paul Caron

What if there were a useful treatment for infection with Ebola, which can produce a life-threatening and frightening hemorrhagic fever, but no easy way to get the product to those in need?  A detailed search of the literature and consideration of the viral structure of the Ebola virus helped me uncover a potentially useful product that is far ahead of other proposed Ebola therapies in development that, based on animal data, is highly likely to have efficacy.

Yet there seems to be no simple way to provide this product on a compassionate basis to those in need. This post is an open request to anyone with knowledge of the situation to take action on this potential treatment before more lives are lost.

Ebola is associated with extremely high mortality, between 60% and 90%, and there is no effective treatment. Until recently, it has been possible to contain the spread of the virus and limit the total number of cases to a maximum of a few hundred per year. This year, containment has proven to be more difficult and the number of cases has swelled to over 1,200, including a number of health care workers.

Map of 2014 Ebola outbreak

Map courtesy of WHO

There is concern that the virus could easily be spread beyond the current region encompassing Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. Indeed there is already one case where an infected traveler flew to Nigeria and later succumbed to this virus. Travel restrictions are being put in place to try to keep the virus contained, but because infected individuals may be symptom-free for up to 21 days, this may not be enough to stop its spread.

The only treatment currently available is supportive replacement of fluids, electrolytes and blood. Broad spectrum antivirals such as ribavirin have proven to be ineffective. There are a number of therapies being specifically developed for Ebola including vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, antisense molecules, and small molecule inhibitors. However, these are all in early stages of development and can’t address the immediate need for an effective therapy.

Antiviral therapies that have proven highly effective for other viral infections often target viral proteins required for replication. Ebola contains an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, a protein that is conserved among other related viruses including Marburg, parainfluenza, mumps, rabies, and RSV. This suggests that inhibitors that target the most conserved region of RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, the nucleotide binding domain, have high potential for activity against Ebola virus.

By reviewing relevant literature, I have uncovered recent experiments with one of these inhibitors, favipiravir (T-705), which have demonstrated that this product can inhibit the virus in cell culture as well as in mouse models of Ebola infection. Papers on this were published by two research groups (Antiviral Res. 2014 May;105:17-21; Antiviral Res. 2014 Apr;104:153-5). One example of favipiravir’s effectiveness is that a one week course of treatment of infected mice was able to prevent death in 100% of the mice. This treatment was 100% effective even when started six days after the initial infection, when the mice already had symptoms.

Favipiravir is currently in development for influenza (flu) infection by FujiFilm Pharmaceuticals/Medivector. It has completed Phase II clinical trials in hundreds of patients and has recently entered multinational pivotal Phase III trials funded by the US Department of Defense.  It was approved for pandemic stockpiling in Japan in May of this year.

Favipiravir has not been advanced by FujiFilm for use in Ebola patients, because it lacks the resources and expertise, according to a company executive quoted in a Bloomberg News article that ran on July 17, 2014. But it is far ahead of other specific Ebola therapies under development. Given the animal data, I believe it to be highly likely that favipiravir will have efficacy in Ebola patients, especially if it could be given relatively early in the infection cycle. Sufficient drug supply for up to 1,000 patients in the planned influenza trial is likely already available. That is in addition to any material already being stockpiled for potential influenza pandemic use in Japan. Processes to produce more should be in place.

Hazard gear

(Photo: European Commission DG ECHO/Flickr/Creative Commons)

There are other precedents for using unapproved therapies in times of clinical emergencies, especially when the situation is life-threatening and there are no other acceptable therapies. Often these situations arise in oncology, where clinicians advocate to use promising therapies that are in development in critically ill patients. A recent example in antiviral therapy involved a cancer patient with an otherwise untreatable viral infection who was able to receive investigational drug brincidofovir from Chimerix, Inc., in North Carolina. The patient soon recovered.

While treating Ebola patients in Western Africa may not be the largest commercial opportunity associated with this molecule, I find it ethically challenging to have a molecule in hand that could prevent many of these patients from dying as well dramatically limit the spread of this disease and then not even attempt to test its efficacy. Drug supply for at least some patients should already exist; it has proven to be relatively safe in humans; and animal experiments indicate that it has a large potential to work. Quickly bringing this potential therapy to patients will demonstrate to the world what medicine in the 21st century should look like.

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Paul Caron is a pharmaceutical industry consultant and founder of Integrated Profiling, LLC. He can be reached at

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Big Data in Drug Discovery and Healthcare: What is the Tipping Point?

By Steve Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors

What good is big data for drug discovery? Not much, if you ask the pharmaceutical industry. The world’s drugmakers have other challenges right now and, with a few notable exceptions like PatientsLikeMe, neither consumer-driven nor patient-driven “big data” seems to be part of the solution.

Even in the apparently more data-driven field of healthcare services, big data keeps bumping up against regulatory and practical barriers. As I wrote earlier this month, a funny thing happened to 23andme on the way to its now-on-hold million-person database….

Mark Murcko, Feyi Olopade and Ajit Singh

Mark Murcko, Feyi Olopade and Ajit Singh (Image courtesy EBD Group)

A recent panel of experts argued that trends in big data will drive up its relevance and provide a navigable path toward greater utility both in pharma and in healthcare. The panelists at the workshop I put together for the 2014 Biotech Showcase in San Francisco last week hinted that the time will soon come when “big data” is as much a part of both drug discovery and healthcare as it is of financial forecasting  and choosing driving routes that minimize traffic.

Click here to watch the video of the panel or copy-paste the link:

The companies that presented are NuMedii, a venture-backed company that calls itself a “digital pharma company” tackling drug discovery itself; and CancerIQ, a data analytics company focusing on aggregating data on how cancer patients are treated and using it to upgrade the treatment that can be provided in different geographies and types of hospitals.

Joining the CEOs of NuMedii and CancerIQ were Ajit Singh, a venture capitalist with Artiman Ventures who taught electrical engineering and neuroscience at Princeton and then ran global businesses for Siemens in oncology and digital radiology; and Mark Murcko, the former chief technology officer of Vertex Pharmaceuticals who is now running a consulting firm and advising computer-powered drug discovery firms such as Schrodinger and Nimbus Discovery.

Due to these engaging and insightful speakers, this was a fascinating panel that delivered all sorts of hints about what looks like an upcoming turning point. Topics included (time stamps on video in parentheses):

  • What sort of venture investor would understand a big data company in healthcare, IT or life science? (10:10) and (12:45)
  • Where do big data startups go to even get their data given the high degree of regulation? (27:00) and (28:50)
  • How can innovative startups avoid being stopped cold by HIPAA? (21:30)
  • What will be the turning point at which the pharmaceutical industry sees big data as a driver of solutions rather than just noise? (32:40) and (38:00) and (52:20)
  • Is genomic data “big data”? (17:00)
  • How can “sparse data” be just as useful as “big data” in solving certain problems? (43:00)
  • How can newly industrialized countries like India and China contribute to models that might be useful in the United States and Europe? Will they “go first” in some sense in using big data? (44:30)
Gini Deshpande, Founder-CEO of NuMedii

Gini Deshpande, Founder-CEO of NuMedii (Image courtesy EBD Group)

Here is a more complete list of time stamps:

  • (2:00) Definition of Big Data “Things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one to extract new insights or create new forms of value in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments and more.” (From the 2013 book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think by Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier)
  • (3:00) Gini Deshpande self-introduction. “At NuMedii, we are a digital pharma company. We are focused on leveraging the vast amounts of life sciences big data that is out there and translating it into drugs with a higher probability of therapeutic and commercial success….We are a pharma company. We leverage the data and turn the data into drug candidates.”
  • (4:20) Mark Murcko self-introduction.
  • (5:10) Feyi Olopade self-introduction. “My co-founder is my mother. She is a nutty professor slash clinical oncologist slash MacArthur genius fellow. It was my mother’s vision to start using data and analytics to deliver more precision treatment and more precision risk assessment….We hope to democratize access to premium cancer care by helping providers deliver data-driven decisions.”
  • (6:35) Ajit Singh self-introduction
  • (7:45) In the world of healthcare, the analytics revolution has barely begun
  • (10:10) How NuMedii bridges the (large) gap between healthcare investors and IT investors
  • (12:45) How CancerIQ bridges the same gap
  • (14:35) Early days of analytics: Shared Medical Systems
  • (17:00) Why genomic data may not be big data
  • (20:35) How 23andme learned the hard way about regulation of medical data
  • (21:30) On overcoming HIPAA: a fascinating framework
  • (25:00) Why IT investing is easier: world of atoms vs. world of bits
  • (27:00) How CancerIQ gets its data
  • (28:50) How NuMedii gets its data
  • (32:40) Why pharma is still (mostly) focused on the drug candidates
  • (38:00) The importance of actionability
  • (41:00) Q&A: How to de-identify health data
  • (42:15) Cancer patients are very willing to share their (personal) information
  • (43:00) The best data may not be big data
  • (44:30) International big data in healthcare – will it take the lead? Case: India
  • (49:00) Case: China
  • (52:20) Why pharma does not yet trust “black box” models – they do not tell a story, says Murcko

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