Pharma, R&D, Startups

Regeneron and Decibel aren’t just collaborating: They want to create a whole new partnering model

Leonard Schleifer, founder and chief executive of Regeneron CNBC, Getty

A veteran biotech exec like Steve Holtzman has seen just about every kind of big-little company collaboration deal in the book — from both sides of the table. Most biotechs, he tells me in his own blunt fashion, prefer a hands-off approach to partnering with the big groups that comes down to this: “Give me your money and stay out of our hair.”

Steven Holtzman

In exchange for that operating capital, though, comes substantial control of the rights to drugs that come out of the clinic. And as CEO of his own startup at Decibel Therapeutics, that’s something he didn’t want to barter on as he gradually makes his way through preclinical work to human studies.

Now Regeneron, the booming biopharma outfit with a world-class rep for discovery and development and a Big Pharma investor/partner of its own in Sanofi, has come along to help Holtzman and his team create a whole new kind of collaboration — one that Regeneron has a real interest in pursuing with a few more select biotech partners.

Today Regeneron and Decibel are rolling out a partnership that’s been in the works since last year. You won’t hear about any specific dollar amounts, but there’s money up front, an equity stake, substantial R&D support, and a hands-on approach that will team Regeneron and Decibel scientists on designated projects.

Regeneron isn’t taking commercial rights. Instead, it will participate as a serious minority investor, with royalties on the marketed products for hearing that Decibel wants to develop.

“We retain 100% of control of development and control of worldwide commercialization rights, which is huge,” says Holtzman. “That’s what drew it to me. I cared more about their capabilities than I cared about their money.”

Holtzman cares, a lot, for Regeneron’s science and research expertise and the platforms it’s built in genetics, antibody development and much, much more.

At one point in their conversation, says the Decibel CEO, he was talking about a monogenic childhood form of hearing loss and a Regeneron scientist started tapping away on his laptop.

After a few moments, he said: “We have 16 of those in the Geisinger database.” They also had a mouse model to adapt for the program.

Nouhad Husseini

Regeneron has done a couple of biotech deals with Intellia and Adicet, but its execs are eager to do a few more like the one they have with Decibel, where they can contribute their technology and expertise in areas where the company currently has no presence.

“We are engaging with others,” says Nouhad Husseini, Regeneron’s BD chief. “We are keen to do more.”

But not a lot more.

“This deal,” adds Husseini, “is going to require a lot of effort from Regeneron. We’re not throwing stuff over the wall. We’re shoulder-to-shoulder with Decibel as a collaborator.”

It’s a new approach, and one that Husseini says has a lot of potential for a company like Regeneron, where the platform tech can accommodate much more than what the company’s R&D group can consume.

“We want to share in equity and royalties,” he notes. “The key piece is, you are in charge. You control the destiny of your company and you bring the entrepreneurial spirit in a more focused way.”

“It is a pretty unusual way of doing deals,” says Husseini, “a little bit odd as an experiment. I don’t think another company could do a deal like this.”

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