Deal-Making Activities Continue In Full Force Amid Coronavirus Chaos
In an exclusive interview, Barbara Lueckel, global head of research technologies at Roche Pharma Partnering, talks about the rationale behind the 2020 deals with Bicycle Therapeutics and Nimble Therapeutics. She gives insight into how deal makers are shifting gears to make deals happen in the challenging environment of the global coronavirus pandemic.
In a virtual conversation as part of the digital BIO-Europe Spring conference, which started on 23 March, Barbara Lueckel, global head of research technologies at Roche Pharma Partnering, spoke to Scrip about recent early-stage collaborations and how the company has no intention of slowing down its deal-making activity in 2020, despite global disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
Lueckel said it was critical that health care companies continued to make deals and seek partnerships to keep R&D engines turning. While she acknowledged the terrible loss and global devastation due to the spread of COVID-19 around the world, Lueckel said big pharma had to carry on its work.
“Even under these difficult circumstances we have no intention to slow down our BD [business development] activities,” she said. “We are working from home right now, as are many of our partners. We are using phone and video calls to stay connected and we are doing negotiations over video calls. She added that it was great to see conferences like BIO-Europe Spring embracing digital offerings quickly. “Internally we are very used to spanning time zones and continents, but still staying connected.”
“Let’s not forget that these are challenging times with so many losing their loved ones,” Lueckel added. “It is paramount, as we are in the health care industry, that we are not slowing down and we are looking to collaborate. Health care is more important now than ever.”
Rationale Behind Recent Deals
Over a decade ago, in 2009, Roche purchased full ownership of Genentech Inc. for $46.8bn, having owned a majority stake in the company since 1990. More recently, Roche and Genentech have merged their BD organizations to create one partnering group that can source and act on deals globally. Lueckel highlighted some of the early-stage deals agreed by the Roche Partnering team in 2020.
In February 2020, Genentech paid $30m up front in a collaboration with Bicycle Therapeutics PLC, a biotechnology company developing a new class of therapeutics based on its proprietary bicyclic peptide technology.
Lueckel said the company had attracted Genentech’s attention because of the novel mechanism of action for its peptides. “Bicycle has shown the mechanism of action for its technology in preclinical work and some clinical data. We can see the potential of this technology.”
Genentech and Bicycle will collaborate on the discovery and preclinical development of novel immunotherapies against multiple targets. Bicycle will be responsible for discovery research and early preclinical development up to candidate selection, and Genentech will be responsible for further development and commercialization upon the selection of candidates.
The upfront payment and potential discovery, development, regulatory and commercial-based milestone payments could total up to $1.7bn for Bicycle. “This partnership is with the gRED [Genentech research and early development] organization and it complements their work in cancer immunotherapy,” Lueckel noted.
Roche’s partnering unit aims to “follow the science,” even if that leads to very early-stage programs, Lueckel said. One example is its strategic collaboration with C4 Therapeutics Inc., which it entered shortly after the latter was founded.
C4 Therapeutics, a spin out company from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, managed to secure $73m in a series A round at the start of 2016 and Roche had already signed its deal in January 2016. The company is developing a new class of targeted protein degradation therapeutics for the treatment of a broad range of diseases. “There were few data available at the time, but the science was very compelling,” Lueckel noted. (Also see "C4 Therapeutics Start-up Starts With Roche Tie-Up, $73m Series A" - Scrip, 7 Jan, 2016.)
Building Scientific Relationships
“We do not shy away from entering a space early if we see scientific promise and alignment with our portfolio, and importantly a cultural fit between the partner and our company,” Lueckel said. “The science must be there to start with, but when you enter a discovery partnership you are tied together for many years. We want to have the right cultural fit with a partner to be able to go through the ups and downs of discovery together.”
Working with biotech partners, Lueckel said Roche aimed to bring the scientists to the table very early on in the discussion. “You want to be able to build that early partnership that you need for a discovery collaboration.”
Also in February this year, Genentech signed a multi-year collaboration with Nimble Therapeutics Inc. Financial details were not disclosed but the collaboration will leverage Nimble's peptide synthesis, screening and optimization platform, chemical diversity and integrated suite of assays to enable faster discovery and optimization of promising compounds for intracellular and extracellular targets.
Interestingly, Nimble is a Roche spin-out company, having been created in April 2019. “The Roche team saw the value in separating the business to enable it to expand its platform and work on a variety of therapeutic areas with strategic partners,” Deval Lashkari, a board director at Nimble Therapeutics, said at the time.
“Nimble has a very different platform to Bicycle Therapeutics,” Lueckel said. “Roche’s diagnostics arm acquired the technology originally in 2007. The platform was found to be very useful in peptide synthesis. Because of the broad application of the technology it was spun out as a biotech last year. This allows Nimble to make the platform accessible to industry partners and our deal enables us to still have access to it.”
Lueckel highlighted that this was a unique situation for a big pharma to spin out a platform technology. “It is great to see this technology made widely available and not just kept in-house.”
How Pharma Deal-Making Has Evolved
In the last few years Lueckel has noticed some interesting changes in pharma and biotech deal-making activities. “We have seen an increase in multi-target deals in pharma. Within those deals there is a variation on the handover point from the biotech to the pharma as well. There are also more creative partnerships,” she noted.
More recently, Roche, following this move towards more creative deals, transformed its arrangement with C4 Therapeutics. Having worked with the company for three years, Roche struck a second deal that had more varied handover points built in for drug candidates being developed under the collaboration, and the new arrangement gave C4 the option to co-develop certain programs. “We are proud of being able to transform a relationship to create a collaboration that works for both parties,” Lueckel said, adding that these changes had been driven by the fact biotechs today had access to more capital and could build up more capabilities in house.
“Partnering has been a foundation of our R&D strategy for decades,” Lueckel said. “We continue to follow the science to find new enabling technologies and modalities … we try to find great science all over the globe, and right now virtually too. We do not shy away from entering collaborations at the early stages.”
This article was originally published on Scrip, Informa Pharma Intelligence https://scrip.pharmaintelligence.informa.com/SC141914/A-Backstage-View-Of-Roches-Recent-Collaborations