Team of Rivals
Enlight Biosciences has a business model that’s compelling enough to coax pharmaceutical companies to do something they rarely do—work together.
In early 2009, the chieftains of several pharmaceutical giants got together to discuss a new kind of biotechnology company. It would be a company guided by pharma to find and develop the technologies missing in the drug-making enterprise. But for it to work, the companies—typically, rivals—would have to work together to identify the biggest technological bottlenecks facing the industry. The new company, dubbed Enlight Biosciences, didn’t want solely an investment of expertise, it was asking for $13 million from each participating company.
“We didn’t know, when we brought these companies together, what it would be like,” said Raju Kucherlapati, a member of Enlight’s scientific advisory board. But to the surprise of meeting organizers Daphne Zohar and David Steinberg, they saw a real appetite to “interact in an open and honest way,” says Steinberg.
In the past, the idea of pharmaceutical companies working together was unheard of. “If you know about this industry and how insular and proprietary it is, then these are very substantial changes in approach and strategy,” says Ken Kaitin, director of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development.
After consulting with pharmaceutical companies about their needs, Enlight narrows its list to a set of key projects, with each company deciding which projects they want to support. Then, with the help of experts and its scientific advisory board, Enlight scours academic labs for emerging products that could satisfy pharma’s wishlist and become viable companies.
Launched only months before the meeting between pharma leaders, Enlight may be the first company to capitalize on pharma’s newfound curiosity about the talents of their rivals, and its success (six pharmaceutical companies have already agreed to participate) rests largely on presenting companies with a model that was too attractive to reject. “It is an industry that desperately needs a new strategy,” says Kaitin. “They’ve been talking about this for two decades, but now it’s an imperative.”
Enlight’s model was an outgrowth of a concept developed by its parent company, PureTech Ventures, based in Boston, Mass. PureTech built companies from the top down. First, find a need—such as a noninvasive way to perform gastric ballooning in obese patients. Next, find academicians or industry scientists who either already work on the problem or who have a product that can be licensed and tweaked. Then create a company (in the case of gastric ballooning, Gelesis) that can develop that idea.
PureTech was started in 2001 as something that functioned as a biotech incubator, providing guidance and management support that an entrepreneur may lack. “This process of starting a company is something that people learn by trial and error,” says board member Zohar. Indeed, many companies fail, despite having excellent underlying science or technology—in part, Zohar and her team noticed, because they weren’t getting enough guidance. “Incubators tend to be really passive” in the way they support entrepreneurs, she says. So PureTech would take a decidedly more active role—in many ways, acting as its own entrepreneur: coming up with the ideas, acquiring or filing the intellectual property (IP) rights, and building a self-sufficient company. With cofounders Robert Langer from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and John Zabriskie, former president and CEO of Pharmacia and Upjohn, helping guide the projects, PureTech launched seven companies, which have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in follow-on financing. Some of those companies have products already on the market.
Over the course of brainstorming new ideas for companies, PureTech’s team of experts realized that scientific instruments and medical devices typically don’t capture the attention of venture capitalists as well as drugs do. In order to build companies around devices, they would need another funding source. So Zohar approached Mervyn Turner, Merck’s chief strategy officer, during a meeting in the summer of 2006, and asked him whether he thought pharmaceutical companies might want to fund technologies that could facilitate their development processes. Turner was all for it; with his input and early support, PureTech initiated plans for what would become Enlight.
Enlight “almost started like any other PureTech project. We saw a need and an opportunity,” says Steinberg, who became Enlight’s CEO. “What was really attractive about his notion” was having pharma companies who were “willing to work together,” says Kucherlapati of Harvard University, who was brought on to recruit Enlight’s board of scientific advisors.After the first infusion of venture capital, many biotech companies struggle to win the attention and validation of pharma backers. With Enlight, “you have the validation of an idea to start with right from the beginning,” says Kucherlapati.
Armed with the early interest of Merck and two other big companies—Pfizer and Eli Lilly—members of the Enlight team descended on individual companies to get at the essence of the industry’s needs. Following discussions with a range of people—from pharmaceutical executives and external technology experts to scientists who work on the problems—the team developed a “master list of pharma needs,” says Steinberg.
Once the needs were tabulated, it was time to discuss the plan of attack at a stakeholders’ summit, including all the pharmaceutical partners. “You can envision that it would be a show and tell” by Enlight, “but it was just the opposite,” says Reid Leonard, executive director of external research and licensing at Merck. No one held back, and “we had many more ideas coming out of the summit than going in,” he says.
Enlight’s website lists some of the items on pharma’s “wish list”—such as predictive models, biomarkers, and biologics platforms—but the company won’t discuss specifics of a planned device until it’s ready to launch the company. Quite early on, Kucherlapati says, the group decided that developing “photoacoustic technology would be great.” One weakness of standard ultrasound is its contrast, whereas standard optical imaging is limited by the depth of light penetration. But combining both techniques, photoacoustic imaging gets the best of both worlds. You get “high-resolution images with optical-type contrast at much [greater] depths than existing optical techniques (cm vs. mm),” says Steinberg in an email.
The goal was to create a noninvasive technology that was as effective in the lab as it was in the clinic. The technology had been explored in academic circles since the 1990s, but never had “core customers showing what would be [the] most impactful” application, says Steinberg.
When Enlight started Endra, its first (and so far, only) spin-off company, based on photoacoustic technology, the company went around to five different institutions to negotiate the intellectual property rights to acquire all of the components necessary to assemble the technology. Though acquiring dispersed IP may seem a Herculean task, “this is our area of focus and expertise,” says Zohar. “We have a good sense of the benchmarks.”
All of Enlight’s spin-off companies will function as independent entities. The pharmaceutical companies that initially funded them can buy their products (potentially with discounts), as can their competitors. The primary stipulation, says Steinberg, is that “for a predetermined period of time, the developed technologies must remain commercially available to Enlight pharmas that participate in that particular effort.” Zohar says Enlight has a number of other companies in the works around other technologies.
It’s too early to say whether the model will succeed, says Jeff Elton, former global chief operating officer and head of strategy at Novartis, who had some discussion with Enlight before he left the company. But clearly, he says, “the concept is working”—the number of pharmaceutical companies that are interested in participating has grown from three founding companies to include Johnson & Johnson and Novartis (and a sixth company that has yet to be made public), each contributing $13 million over 5 years.
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Zohar, developing ideas that satisfy a missing piece of the drug development process and creating companies around that idea. “It’s the best part of being entrepreneurial.”