Ian elaborates on the future and uniqueness of the £40M collaboration and why it will succeed where other transnational funding mechanism have failed.
Prior to assuming the role of Chairman at Apollo, Dr Tomlinson was also the Senior Vice President and Head of Worldwide Business Development and Biopharmaceuticals R&D in GSK.
B&M: Ian you’re now the Chairman of the Apollo Therapeutics Investment Committee. I wonder if we could take a few minutes to outline what the mission and structure of the fund is, and how it will work?
IT: It’s a 40 million pound fund investing in the ‘Valley of Death’ – the translational stage between academic science and the point at which it becomes commercially attractive. There’s an awful lot of great science, but not a lot of money going into that space and the first point of the fund is to address this.
The fund itself is a partnership between 3 universities - Cambridge, UCL and Imperial - and three pharma companies - GSK, AstraZeneca and J&J. A small team of scientists employed by Apollo, working with the tech transfer offices of the universities, will be tasked with finding ideas that need a series of critical experiments to be carried out before they get over that threshold of being commercially attractive.
The team will go in, identify investigators, discuss with them what work needs to be done, and draw up a project plan. That plan will then be pitched to the Apollo Investment Committee, which comprises one member of each of the partners, and myself as independent chair.
If we decide to invest, that project will be funded anything from £150,000 up to £3m per project. The project will be run, overseen and project managed by the folks in the Apollo team. And then if that project is successful the pharma companies will have option to licence on terms negotiated with the original TTO and university.
That’s essentially how it will work. And we hope it will enable a series of interesting candidate medicines or therapeutic approaches to be advanced that otherwise would not have been funded or indeed would not have been identified in the first place.
B&M: Perhaps you can tell us a little about how this fund came to be. What was the inspiration for it and why do you think it is needed?
IT: The UK has a lot of great academic research that is already being translated into medicines, either by companies in the UK or more frequently companies in the US.
However, there is a general belief that there is more great academic science than there is money and commitment to take it to a point where it becomes commercially attractive. In other words, there is a real gap in funding which we are trying to fill.
The second main point of thisfund is to hook up pharmaceutical scientists at a very early stage with academic scientists. Academic scientists can be experts in biology - in the target and in the pre clinical work. The pharma scientists are experts in what you need to do to make medicine - how to formulate it, how to deliver it. Having those two groups of scientists come together at an early stage is extremely important. In the UK those connections are not made as often as we might like them to be. They tend to be somewhat random and down to serendipity. So what we’re going to do with Apollo is helpto make those contacts and help academics find their pharmaceutical counterparts so they can have a conversation and actually want to do something together.
B&M: We’ve seen this trend of pharma companies engaging earlier and earlier and a real step change approach to industry academia collaborations over the past few years. This fund is also evidence of that. What you think is driving that?
IT: 10 or 15 years ago many pharma companies thought they could come up with targets or target biology themselves, or at the very least take an idea in the public domain and develop it into a potential medicine.
Pharm realise, and biotech the same, that actually it’s not an efficient way of operating. 99% of scientists are not in those pharma companies, and you want to be working with the community of experts. And you have to believe that having complementary expertise around the table with academics who understand one area of the science much better, and pharmaceutical scientists who know another area of the science much better, has got to be better than one or the other group trying to go it alone. That is the basis of it. Pharma has definitely come round to that. You see pharma doing more and more deals with biotech companies over the last 5 to 10 years. And in the last 2 to 4 years I would say doing much more directly with academia. Think about the amount of money spent in academia - it’s literally hundreds of billions. The question is how do you actually connect the scientists in the academic lab with the scientists in the commercial lab. That’s what Apollo is really about.
B&M: Why do you think Apollo will succeed where other translational funding mechanisms have failed?
IT: Firstly, when Apollo invest in a programme the actual IP that the university has stays in the university. In fact, there’s no licencing agreement done at that point. Apollo simply has a right to future revenues that emerges from any licencing opportunity in the future, and the pharma companies involved have an option to licence that programme. There’s no wasted time.
If you imagine trying to have 3 universities and 3 pharma companies investing in, say, 30 programmes over the next 6 years, which is the kind of numbers we’re thinking about, those 30 licencing arrangements between 3 universities and 3 pharma companies would take a long time, cost a lot of money, not least in lawyers time, whereas here we can invest in those programmes without further contracts being negotiated. Then, only when the project is successful is the time, effort and money spent in putting together a licencing agreement. This should be much more efficient. The other reason is going back to that connection between pharma and academics and having a genuinely collaborative approach. I don’t think many of the arrangements that exist today have that hard connection we are building. In this case we’ll have academic scientists and we’ll have the team in Apollo who will be scientists, going into the universities. But at the same time we have an ability to reach into GSK, J&J, AstraZeneca, and hookup both of those groups with their scientists.
We’ll be creating a community of expertise around a particular project, rather than saying we’re going to invest in that, here’s the money, off you go, let’s see what happens. Here, we’re going to get everyone in the room and help them to work together.
"We’ll be creating a community of expertise around a particular project, rather than saying we’re going to invest in that, here’s the money. Here, we’re going to get everyone in the room and help them to work together."
B&M: I wanted to talk a little bit about how you’re going to manage the interests of the various constituent parts of the committee and fund. You’ve got obviously3 big pharma and 3 universities. Some goals will be aligned, but everyone is going to have their own priorities. How have you structured it so that there is a win-win for everyone?
IT: The universities are all very keento see their great science translated into great medicines. And they also appreciate there is a difficulty in securing funding and complementary expertise to make that happen. The pharma companies clearly want medicines so they’re all aligned on that point. Apollo is a vehicle that brings the two groups together. And if the model is successful, we will hopefully enable a numberof medicines to be created that otherwise wouldn’t have come into existence.
Of course if at the end of a particular project all 3 pharma companies want that medicine, there’s going to need to be a process to work out who gets it, and how the bidding process works. That process has already been laid out and agreed. The ultimate decision will be with the Apollo Investment Committee, minus the conflicting parties, the originating university and the potential destination pharma company or companies.
I think it would be great if all 3 pharma companies were interested in the end. But in reality you’ll find one or maybe two are more interested than all three going forward. Andof course there’s also the possibility that none of the three want to licence it. In which case there’s a process agreed where we will go looking for third party licensees.
B&M: Can you tell me who are the brains behind this? Who came up with the idea and got people round a table and made it happen?
IT: A number of people were involved. The original idea came from the universities and university TTO’s. They were acutely aware of their being a gap in funding and expertise, in terms of translating the science into potential medicines.
So that’s’ where the initial drive was coming from.
Then of course it’s a matter of getting the pharma companies involved. In J&J, Astra Zeneca and GSK you’ve probably got the 3 pharma companies who are most committed in investing in partnershipsin the UK. GSK and Astra Zeneca are based here and J&J has a very strong licencing presence through their innovation centre in London. Also, the TTOs had already forged quite strong relationships with those 3 universities, so they fell into place quite easily.
B&M: Have you decided on some immediate milestones? Some short term goals and long term goals?
IT: Obviously the main goals are around the projects. We’re assessing 30 projects over a 6 year period, so I would personally like to see 3 or 4 being invested in in the next 12 months.
We’ve still got to hire a leader for the drug discovery team and put the rest of the team together – this will be a critical milestone in the next few months.
Then of course there is the first investment, which I’m sure we will want to announce once we’ve made it. That will be something I’m sure will happen in the next 4-6 months.
"Obviously the main goals are around the projects. We’re assessing 30 projects over a 6 year period, so I would personally like to see 3 or 4 being invested in in the next 12 months."
B&M: Ok. Let’s talk a bit about how the fund is going to impact the sector, what sort of knock on effects we can expect to see. First of all do you think this is the first of many of these sorts of funds we’re going to see starting to develop?
IT: It’s clearly a new model so we have to see how it’s going to work out. I haven’t seen anything quite like this before. And with everything new you have to see if it’s going to work or not. Obviously we’re hopeful and excited about the prospects, but it’s going to be 2 to 3 years before we really know.
Let’s say it is successful. Let’s say we come up with a number of candidate molecules which are licenced to those big pharma companies, or indeed to third parties. I’m guessing out of the 30 projects we invest in, maybe 3 to 6 or something in that range could be successful. If we get that level of success you could say is this scalable? Can you include other universities? Can you include other pharma companies? Would you want to?
At the moment this is based around 3 top UK universities. If it’s successful there’s nothing stopping the same model being applied to other UK universities or indeed to universities outside the UK. So all that could be up for grabs!
Realistically, you’d need to come back in 2 or 3 years’ time and say look, what have we done, is it good, have we delivered something. If it is then maybe we could do a whole lot more.
B&M: How does this fund and initiative compare to some translational models that we see coming out of the US?
IT: Obviously I can’t speak for any one of those in particular, but they do seem to be typically one pharma with one institute. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the best way of going about it.
Having a focus on 3 institutes, with a little bit of competition between universities to try and put their best projects forward, and indeed a bit of competition from the pharma perspective in terms the licensing at the end is probably a good thing.
B&M: A couple of questions to close on. Firstly what do you think is going to be the biggest challenge the fund will face?
IT: As with any investment vehicle, it’s making sure you invest in opportunities that are not just exciting and full of great science but have the potential to be commercial successes.
We’ll be focussing hard on making sure we identify the best opportunities and don’t just pile in to any old opportunity that’s brought forward. I think making sure we have that really high bar on the investments that we make is going to be really important, especially at an early stage.
Making sure we get into those universities nice and quick, building trust as soon as we can, and identifying those high quality opportunities sooner rather than later. That is the key challenge here. And then maintaining the momentum.
"As with any investment vehicle, it’s making sure you invest in opportunities that are not just exciting and full of great science but have the potential to be commercial successes."
B&M: The converse of that, what’s exciting you most about the potential of this fund?
IT: You think it’s difficult enough getting a commercial agreement between a pharma company and one academic institute, well here we’ve managed to sign something between 3 of the biggest pharma companies in the world and 3 of the top 10 universities in the world. Getting that agreement together was an absolute tour de force on behalf of the various leaders and sponsors in those individual organisations. Just achieving that excites me.
The reason it excites me is not because we’ve signed the agreement, although it’s a great milestone, but it shows the partnership that can be exemplified by those parties. And if that same partnership flows into the presentation of opportunities, the collegial nature of the AIC investment committee and the way we drive those projects forwards, and ultimately licence and see them become commercial successes - well than that will be something truly remarkable.
B&M: It almost marks a new era of collaboration we can expect to see going forward.
IT: I think it is truly unique. All the partners are really excited about this, getting it going, and building on the momentum of signing the agreement. Furthermore, everyone is absolutely committed to finding the best projects, bringing them forward, and making those projects as successful as they can be.
Everyone around the table wants the same outcome. Which again is somewhat unique. Sometimes when you sign these things there isn’t quite that momentum. Here there’s real momentum.
Ian Tomlinsonwas also the Senior Vice President and Head of Worldwide Business Development and Biopharmaceuticals R&D in GSK, prior to assuming the role of Chairman at Apollo.
Apollo Therapeuticsis a unique collaboration between AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and the technology transfer offices of Imperial College London, University College London and the University of Cambridge. The £40 million fund, launched in January 2016, will drive forward therapeutic innovation with the goal of significantly improving the speed and potential of university research being translated into novel medicines.