We were pleased to participate in a “State of the Industry” panel on immuno-oncology at the 2015 BIO Investor Forum in October. The lively discussion included other participants from across the industry and investing world, including the licensing office of Merck & Co. and Baxter’s corporate venture arm, Baxalta, as well as small biotech company Heat Biologics and patient advocacy group and researcher funder, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Much of the discussion pointed to the great opportunities presented by drug combinations in this fast-moving space — as well as the enormous challenges posed by the large and increasing number of possible drug combinations as well as the many and varied cancer settings in which these drugs could be tested.
From our view as strategic consultants who work with companies and investors across the industry, collaboration will be key to quickly unlocking the great therapeutic potential of immuno-oncology. For the big pharma companies, a successful partnership adds differentiation to your product as well as the ability to enter new therapeutic areas and fill gaps where you may not yet have expertise. For the smaller pharmaceutical company with a portfolio of check-point inhibitors, partnering allows you to catch up and enter the market with a differentiated position with a combination therapy that has demonstrated value. Across the board, we also expect to see massive investment in the immuno-oncology field to spur territory gain and to help position second generation therapies. For companies not yet engaged in the immuno-oncology space, collaborations are also essential, as they can bring exposure to particular products and technology and help to build a compelling case for their value.
Thus, we see the partnering field — whether for single assets or portfolio partnerships — as becoming more competitive. Leaders in the immuno-oncology field are receiving dozens of offers to combine assets. They must prioritize their interests in potential combinations and decide if and where they want to invest (rather than just engaging in clinical collaborations) — something few are doing as yet.
A company seeking to partner with the leading firms therefore needs to stand out from the crowd. For these firms — and indeed, for anyone entering this area with a new approach and novel therapeutic candidate — the best advice we can give is to invest in generating an exceptionally strong preclinical data set. In particular, this should show positive impact on tumor immunogenicity, T-cell infiltration, no negative impact on immune cells function, safety, and dosing data. High quality preclinical research — which helps to de-risk your asset, build a compelling case for its value proposition, and interest an immune-oncology leader in investment and not just clinical collaboration — is the ultimate cornerstone to enabling successful deal-making.
Showing through data that there is a good reason to believe in the therapeutic potential of your asset — and its synergy with that of a desired collaborator — is key. Both collaborators and especially potential investors need a reason to believe.