Bio­science in­dus­try stake­hold­er col­lab­o­ra­tion key to ad­dress­ing in­equal­i­ty

Biotech Voices is a collection of exclusive opinion editorials from some of the leading voices in biopharma on the biggest industry questions today. Think you have a voice that should be heard? Reach out to senior editors Kyle Blankenship and Amber Tong.

When a glob­al pan­dem­ic hit, the bio­science in­dus­try an­swered the call for vac­cines and ther­a­pies in record time, which will save mil­lions of lives. This re­sponse was pos­si­ble be­cause of a sus­tained in­vest­ment of risk-cap­i­tal by the ven­ture cap­i­tal in­dus­try in life sci­ences com­pa­nies, peak­ing in 2020. Great sci­en­tists, vi­sion­ary lead­er­ship and high-qual­i­ty in­vestors that backed new sci­ence and bold en­tre­pre­neurs led to the in­no­v­a­tive tech­nolo­gies of BioN­Tech and Mod­er­na that con­tributed to the ini­tial Covid-19 vac­cines.

As the sec­tor right­ly basks in the glow of this year’s ac­com­plish­ments, there is a con­cur­rent re­al­i­ty to con­front. Covid-19 has fur­ther ex­posed the in­equities in so­ci­ety, dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly im­pact­ing women and mi­nori­ties. This im­bal­ance is al­so ev­i­dent in the bio­science com­mu­ni­ty, pro­vok­ing many lead­ers to act on in­equal­i­ty.

Ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists find­ing rea­sons to change

The ven­ture cap­i­tal in­dus­try, not on­ly with­in life sci­ences, has well-doc­u­ment­ed chal­lenges with di­ver­si­ty, eq­ui­ty and in­clu­sion. On­ly 2.6% of to­tal VC fund­ing in 2020 has gone to Black and Lat­inx founders, and fund­ing for fe­male founders has sunk to lev­els not seen since 2017. De­spite that, I per­ceive a grow­ing ap­petite for change. The ques­tion is – How?

In VC firms, the low at­tri­tion of in­vest­ment part­ners and the lim­it­ed ex­pan­sion of firms lim­its ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties for the many tal­ent­ed As­so­ci­ates and Prin­ci­pals that rep­re­sent the fu­ture. With no vis­i­ble route to part­ner, these em­ploy­ees seek op­por­tu­ni­ty else­where, out­side ven­ture cap­i­tal. The loss of such tal­ent re­duces the chance to in­tro­duce more di­ver­si­ty among a ven­ture firm’s part­ner ranks.

A lack of di­ver­si­ty among VCs great­ly in­flu­ences in­vest­ment de­ci­sions and cap­i­tal al­lo­ca­tion. For ex­am­ple, re­search shows how in­ter­ac­tions with in­vestors dif­fer be­tween men and women en­tre­pre­neurs (We Ask Men to Win and Women Not to Lose: Clos­ing the Gen­der Gap in Start­up Fund­ing. Kanze, Huang, Con­ley and Hig­gins). The ques­tions di­rect­ed at men ex­plore the size and mag­ni­tude of the op­por­tu­ni­ty. In con­trast, women are more like­ly to be ques­tioned about pre­ven­tion fac­tors and down-side risk.

Cre­at­ing a new com­pa­ny in life sci­ences, and grow­ing it, in­vari­ably re­lies on ven­ture fi­nance. VC firms have a strong in­flu­ence over the com­pa­ny build­ing process, in­clud­ing the com­po­si­tion of boards and se­nior man­age­ment, as well as the tal­ent and cul­ture. In­suf­fi­cient di­ver­si­ty among ven­ture in­vestors can lim­it a port­fo­lio com­pa­ny’s com­pet­i­tive­ness in the tal­ent mar­ket be­cause di­verse can­di­dates se­lect em­ploy­ers where they see them­selves rep­re­sent­ed and suc­cess­ful. Just 3% of VC in­vest­ing part­ners are racial or eth­nic mi­nori­ties and around 11% are women. This leads to an ex­ist­ing bias among VCs to­wards his­tor­i­cal suc­cess pat­terns, which has been to the detri­ment of mi­nori­ties and women.

Pri­vate com­pa­nies re­act to pub­lic mar­ket re­quire­ments

The re­cent Nas­daq pro­pos­als to the SEC on board di­ver­si­ty and dis­clo­sure, along­side new state laws and reg­u­la­tions, are forc­ing many pub­lic com­pa­nies to be­come more di­verse. Mean­while, pri­vate com­pa­nies in the bio­science sec­tor re­main strong­ly in­flu­enced by ven­ture in­vestors who many per­ceive as pas­sive re­gard­ing di­ver­si­ty and in­clu­sion.

The in­ter­play be­tween ven­ture in­vestors and port­fo­lio com­pa­nies is a source of great op­por­tu­ni­ty to ad­vance DE&I in the sec­tor. In­creas­ing di­ver­si­ty will cre­ate val­ue for all stake­hold­ers, and re­duce the fric­tion points as com­pa­nies tran­si­tion from pri­vate ven­ture own­er­ship to the pub­lic mar­kets. Chang­ing the com­po­si­tion of the board and the man­age­ment team takes time and en­er­gy and can cause a com­pa­ny to lose vi­tal mo­men­tum. Cul­ture is of­ten seed­ed ear­ly in a com­pa­ny’s life and pos­i­tive­ly ad­dress­ing cul­ture from the get-go re­duces the need for cul­tur­al cor­rec­tions as a com­pa­ny ma­tures.

The pow­er of the col­lec­tive

For small com­pa­nies, with­out the ex­per­tise and hu­man cap­i­tal, the in­tent to im­ple­ment DE&I prac­tices, tools and poli­cies of­ten fails. Prac­tices bor­rowed from large in­ter­na­tion­al com­pa­nies are not rou­tine­ly ef­fec­tive ei­ther.

The range and com­plex­i­ty of DE&I is­sues com­pa­nies need to tack­le, make the task daunt­ing and com­pli­cat­ed. In­stead of or­ga­ni­za­tions in­di­vid­u­al­ly piec­ing to­geth­er a DE&I strat­e­gy, con­stituents have an op­por­tu­ni­ty to work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly and pre-com­pet­i­tive­ly to de­vel­op DE&I so­lu­tions that are de­signed for the op­er­a­tional re­quire­ments of ven­ture cap­i­tal firms and ven­ture-backed pri­vate com­pa­nies. The Bio­science & In­vestor In­clu­sion Group (BI­IG) is one such op­por­tu­ni­ty (www.bioin­clu­sion.org).

Bio­science & In­vestor In­clu­sion Group chan­nels col­lec­tive com­mu­ni­ty ac­tion; some­thing the bio­science sec­tor does well. BI­IG en­ables com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als to con­tribute their per­spec­tive or ex­pe­ri­ence to struc­tured work­ing groups ini­tial­ly pri­or­i­tiz­ing In­vestor In­ter­ac­tions; Hir­ing and On­board­ing, and Peo­ple Growth and Re­ten­tion. The DE&I so­lu­tions BI­IG de­vel­ops will be freely ac­ces­si­ble to help ad­vance and ac­cel­er­ate DE&I in the in­dus­try.

When in­vestors and en­tre­pre­neurs link arms in the face of chal­leng­ing prob­lems, they are ca­pa­ble of re­mark­able achieve­ments. This uni­ty and the open and col­lab­o­ra­tive spir­it of the bio­science com­mu­ni­ty can tack­le an­oth­er big prob­lem the sec­tor must con­front — in­equal­i­ty.

Karl Simp­son is the CEO of Lift­stream and a founder of The Bio­science & In­vestor In­clu­sion Group.

Biotech Voic­es is a con­tributed col­umn from se­lect End­points News read­ers. Read more here.

Bob Bradway, Amgen CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Am­gen bel­lies back up to the M&A ta­ble for an­oth­er biotech buy­out, this time with a $2.5B deal for an­ti­body play­er

Five months after Amgen CEO Bob Bradway stepped up to the M&A table and acquired Five Prime for $1.9 billion, following up with the smaller Rodeo acquisition, he’s gone back in for another biotech buyout.

This time around, Amgen is paying $900 million cash while committing up to $1.6 billion in milestones to bag the privately held Teneobio, an antibody drug developer that has expertise in developing new bispecifics and multispecifics. In addition, Amgen cited Teneobio’s “T-cell engager platform, which expands on Amgen’s existing leadership position in bispecific T-cell engagers by providing a differentiated, but complementary, approach to Amgen’s current BiTE platform.”

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How one start­up fore­told the neu­ro­science re­nais­sance af­ter '50 years of shit­show'

In the past couple of years, something curious has happened: Pharma and VC dollars started gushing into neuroscience research.

Biogen’s controversial new Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm has been approved on the basis of removing amyloid plaque from the brain, but the new neuro-focused pharma and biotechs have much loftier aims. Significantly curbing or even curing the most notorious disorders would prove the Holy Grail for a complex system that has tied the world’s best drug developers in knots for decades.

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Ryan Watts, Denali CEO

De­nali slips as a snap­shot of ear­ly da­ta rais­es some trou­bling ques­tions on its pi­o­neer­ing blood-brain bar­ri­er neu­ro work

Denali Therapeutics had drummed up considerable hype for their blood-brain barrier technology since launching over six years ago, hype that’s only intensified in the last 14 months following the publications of a pair of papers last spring and proof of concept data earlier this year. On Sunday, the South San Francisco-based biotech gave the biopharma world the next look at in-human data for its lead candidate in Hunter syndrome.

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Why is On­col­o­gy Drug De­vel­op­ment Re­search Late to the Dig­i­tal Bio­mark­ers Game?

During the recent Annual ASCO Meeting, thousands of cancer researchers and clinicians from across the globe joined together virtually to present and discuss the latest findings and breakthroughs in cancer research and care. There were more than 5000+ scientific abstracts presented during this event, yet only a handful involved the use of motion-tracking wearables to collect digital measures relating to activity, sleep, mobility, functional status, and/or quality of life. Although these results were a bit disappointing, they should come as no surprise to those of us in the wearable technology field.

Art Levinson (Calico)

Google-backed Cal­i­co dou­bles down on an­ti-ag­ing R&D pact with Ab­b­Vie as part­ners ante up $1B, start to de­tail drug tar­gets

Seven years after striking up a major R&D alliance, AbbVie and Google-backed anti-aging specialist Calico are doubling down on their work with a joint, $1 billion commitment to continuing their work together. And they’re also beginning to offer some details on where this project is taking them in the clinic.

According to their statement, each of the two players is putting up $500 million more to keep the labs humming.

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Busi­ness­es and schools can man­date the use of Covid-19 vac­cines un­der EUAs, DOJ says

As public and private companies stare down the reality of the Delta variant, many are now requiring that their employees or students be vaccinated against Covid-19 prior to attending school or to returning or starting a new job. Claims that such mandates are illegal or cannot be used for vaccines under emergency use authorizations have now been dismissed.

Setting the record straight, the Department of Justice on Monday called the mandates legal in a new memo, even when used for people with vaccines that remain subject to EUAs.

Ugur Sahin, BioNTech CEO (Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP Images)

BioN­Tech is spear­head­ing an mR­NA vac­cine de­vel­op­ment pro­gram for malar­ia, with a tech trans­fer planned for Africa

Flush with the success of its mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, BioNTech is now gearing up for one of the biggest challenges in vaccine development — which comes without potential profit.

The German mRNA pioneer says it plans to work on a jab for malaria, then transfer the tech to the African continent, where it will work with partners on developing the manufacturing ops needed to make this and other vaccines.

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No­var­tis reshuf­fles its wild cards; Tough sell for Bio­gen? Googling pro­teins; Ken Fra­zier's new gig; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

If you enjoy the People section in this report, you may also want to check out Peer Review, my colleagues Alex Hoffman and Kathy Wong’s comprehensive compilation of comings and goings in biopharma.

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Andrea Pfeifer, AC Immune CEO (AC Immune)

Look­ing to repli­cate Covid-19 suc­cess in neu­ro, BioN­Tech back­ers bet on AC Im­mune and its new­ly-ac­quired Parkin­son's vac­cine

The German billionaires behind BioNTech have found a new vaccine project to back.

Through their family office Athos Service, twin brothers Thomas and Andreas Strüngmann are leading a $25 million private placement into Switzerland’s AC Immune — which concurrently announced that it’s shelling out $58.7 million worth of stock to acquire Affiris’ portfolio of therapies targeting alpha-synuclein, including a vaccine candidate, for Parkinson’s disease.