On the next day, we had an opportunity to visit with a colleague at the technology licensing office of a major research university. I had previously worked with him, when my former companies licensed in drug candidates for development.
The timeline from discovery through proof of concept in man, is aptly named the ‘valley of death’, because this part of the program is the most risky element of drug development. In the prevailing view of drug discovery and development, the economic value of a program (pipeline asset) increases over time, as the program is ‘de-risked’. A favorable value proposition sets the stage for monetizing the asset, through licensing, partnering or sale. In the classic large company business model, this would not be a problem, as planned and measured resources are applied to meet specified milestones.
In a tight capital environment and with industry focus on relatively de-risked programs, the ‘valley of death’ has become a problem for academic innovators. University technology transfer offices have emphasised proactive business development, to appeal to potential interested partners, for licensing and development. They expect to see additional animal data, market projections, and a solid IP position, with freedom to operate.
Major research universities and teaching hospitals have responded strategically, by creating ‘accelerator funds’. These funds award competitive translational grants to principal investigators, to help advance their programme towards its commercial potential. In a typical scenario, the technology office provides mentorship, expert advisors, program planning and other advice, as well as support in contracting and project management activities.
Reflecting the new realities of the competitive environment, selection of candidate programs follows priorities similar to those that an innovator drug company would employ. Projects must show a clear path to market and estimation of commercial potential, if successful. Universities are attempting to utilise other non-dilutive sources of funds, such as targeted philanthropy and government small business grants, whenever possible in support of the acceleration effort.