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Anchors Away: With Virtual Partnering, Biotech Buzz No Longer Tethered to Kendall Square

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BERLIN, 21 Oct – “It’s complicated,” said George Badescu, VP of business development at Heidelberg Pharma when I asked him if he prefers face-to-face or remote partnering conferences. “There are aspects of digital partnering I like but it can’t replace in-person interactions. I really miss them.”

The need for a better balance in partner communications appears to be a common concern for many people planning to attend the 2020 BIO Europe® Digital conference October 26 – 29. Travel demands before the COVID-19 virus pandemic could be quite intensive, so the forced switch to virtual meetings was - in some ways - welcome. However, nothing beats the spontaneous exchanges that happen over a warm lunch buffet or when bumping into a long-lost colleague between appointments.

BIO-Europe Digital, October 26-29, 2020

One notable difference is how quickly the switch to virtual has made physical locations less important in general. At the moment, having a brick-and-mortar presence in a biotech hub is less of an advantage in the fight for attention from investors and big pharma. This is a benefit for small companies based in off-the-beaten-path locations who need to attract partner interest in their innovative technologies to bring new therapies to patients.

“I believe that if we were in Kendall Square, Cambridge Massachusetts, we would be one of the hottest companies out there,” Badescu said. The switch to remote meetings has opened the door to a future that is potentially more inclusive in many ways. SCIENCE magazine reported in September that the increase in virtual scientific conferences has opened doors to researchers around the world and has led to a surge in participation. The experience may cause the industry to rethink the benefits of limiting the exchange of ideas to a physical location.

Heidelberg Pharma (HDP) is the first biotech investment of SAP founder Dietmar Hopp and the first to develop the toxin Amanitin into cancer therapies using its proprietary Antibody Targeted Amanitin Conjugate (ATAC) technology platform and to advance this novel biological mode of action in oncology. HDP intends to partner its technology with companies that have antibodies for specific tumour antigens, to develop new treatments.

“By joining forces with companies with an expertise in specific targets and disease indications, we can develop more treatments, and reach the patients who need them, sooner,” Badescu said. “We are driving ATAC technology into the clinic and are on the cusp of something really extraordinary,” he added.

For Björn Cochlovius, who is attending 2020 BIO Europe Digital with Atriva Therapeutics, the switch to virtual partnering meetings has been more efficient but hindered by time-zone confusion. An Asian partnering meeting he recently attended had problems with attendees missing meetings due to uncertainty about the meeting time which was listed in both the remote participant’s time zone and the local time zone of the conference location. “I found that more than half of my meetings did not happen. That was very disappointing,” he said.

Atriva Therapeutics is developing first-in-class host-targeting antiviral therapies against respiratory infections, including COVID-19 and influenza. The company’s ATR-002 molecule is a therapeutic agent specifically developed to treat severe respiratory infections caused by RNA (ribonucleic acid) viruses – it may prevent progression to critical-stage COVID-19 in hospitalized patients and holds strong potential in the current pandemic.

At 2020 BIO Europe Digital Cochlovius is looking for potential partners for regional collaborations also in Asia and the Middle East. “That may be surprising,” he said, “because it’s BIO Europe but the funny thing is that many people come from outside of Europe to find European partners. So, it works quite well,” he said.

Jürgen Gamer, VP of business development for Apogenix, said the transition was difficult at first and he had unfruitful partnering meetings in the beginning. Now he feels, people have become more comfortable with the technology and the experience is improving. Still, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of commitment compared to in-person conferences. “When you attend a meeting on-site, you need to spend two or three days of time being there, spend money on the hotel and it’s just much more of a commitment,” he said. “People are more likely to be present in every way—physically and mentally. When you have a virtual meeting, people are rushing on and off and not as focused.”

Apogenix develops novel immunotherapies targeting different TNFSF-dependent signaling pathways for the treatment of cancer and viral infections, such as COVID-19. Its lead asset asunercept has shown clinical efficacy in a randomized phase II study in glioblastoma and a phase I study in MDS. A randomized phase II study in COVID-19 has just been initiated. Apogenix’s preclinical HERA platform has shown superiority over other competitive formats in stimulating an anti-cancer immune response. The most advanced asset is partnered with AbbVie and is currently in a clinical phase I study to treat solid tumors.

Gamer is looking for partners for two Apogenix projects and wants to get in touch with new interested parties, but he also hopes to advance discussions with partners with whom Apogenix has already engaged.

Overall, Gamer likes attending on-site meetings because they provide time and space to think about the big picture or reflect on complicated topics. “I find this time helpful because often when I am in the office there are many distractions and it’s only possible to deal with what is right in front of me,” he said.

Irina Staatz, founder of Staatz Business Development & Strategy said personal connections are crucial to her business, therefore, she has attended three partnering conferences remotely this year. Staatz said she felt the virtual versions of these meetings were a good solution in the given situation, albeit the number of attendees was less numerous than expected.

“You can make it work,” she said. “Meeting one-to-one with partners via video conference as opposed to sitting in a booth is not really different. What is missing is the informal part, meeting people in the meeting halls, having chats right and left.”

However, despite the overall COVID-19 pandemic, Staatz said her business has remained stable with a continued high demand for consulting services. The company provides strategic guidance and operative management of global transactions customary in the industry as well as strategic market access advice around the value perception, pricing potential and evidence development for products to match payer expectations and support successful market access across Europe.

Her expectations for 2020 BIO Europe Digital are fairly high. “It is the European partnering conference,” she said. “It typically provides a wide breadth of companies to connect with. I hope it will provide the same opportunities for visibility and new partnerships (this year).”

For Staatz, the dynamics of partnering meetings themselves have not changed with the virtual format. “How the meeting goes is a matter of personal style and focused presentation of the USPs of the opportunity at hand.

For Jeremy Benattar, marketing and strategy director at ADOCIA, the virtual format proves something of a paradox. “It is both more flexible and more structured in a way,” he said. “It obliges you to strictly stick to the timetable”, he explained. “But the virtual format is also flexible in the sense of participation because it is easier to include more people in the discussion”.

Adocia was rated the fourth most innovative French SME by the national intellectual property office (INPI) in 2019. It specializes in the development of new formulations of already-approved therapeutic proteins and peptides for the treatment of diabetes and other metabolic diseases. Benattar’s expectation of 2020 BIO Europe Digital is to find partners that can in-license Adocia products and bring them to diabetes patients. He is especially looking for partners for an insulin and amylin 2-in-1 products treating type 1 and type 2 diabetes for which very promising clinical results were obtained recently.

“The problem with using amylin analog as a standalone product is that it requires three injections per day on top of four insulin injections, that’s why patients were not using it.”, he explained “Adocias’ 2-in-1 insulin and amylin formulations will bring an improved glycemia and a better weight control whereas the majority of diabetes patients are suffering from overweight or obesity.”

Benattar has noticed that virtual interactions tend to be more professional and results oriented, but also acknowledges the loss of informal social exchanges which helps with relationship building.

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