L to R: Anna Chrisman of EBD Group; Ron Connolly of Frontage; and Lisa Methley of partnering360®
partnering360®, the open online community of life science dealmakers dedicated to enhancing partnering experiences throughout the year, has reached a major milestone in announcing Ron Connolly as the the winner of its 30,000th member contest. Connolly is Senior VP, Corporate Development at Frontage, an early phase drug development partner.
In May, 2015, partnering360 ran a contest to celebrate its 30,000th member by encouraging members to have a colleague create a partnering360 profile, thereby entering them in a contest to win a free registration to an EBD Group life science partnering event for themselves and their colleague.
We caught up with Ron at a recent life science event to congratulate him and to find out more about Frontage.
p360: How did you hear about the partnering360 30,000th member contest?
RC: Frontage has been a member of partnering360 since 2013, and I joined in August, 2014. I saw a discussion on LinkedIn that mentioned partnering360 group forums, and I logged in to see what discussions were taking place. At that point partnering360 came back on my radar, and I urged my colleagues to join as something we should track and be involved in.
p360: Why is having access to a membership network of dealmakers on partnering360 of interest to you as a company?
RC: Right now we are growing our business both organically and by acquisition. My responsibility and focus has shifted and I was looking to keep tabs on current trends and which businesses look attractive, to find those with whom we may have an interest to engage and partner, and ultimately acquire.
p360: Tell us more about Frontage. Do you have a development arm or are you purely a CRO?
RC: Frontage is purely CRO, but long-term we may be developing a CMO business, as well. Currently we manufacture clinical trial materials, but we are not commercial so we don’t use the CMO moniker at this point. But we are looking at the possibility of adding a site or business that will bring us the CMO work. Last year Frontage received a large investment from TigerMed, a large late phase clinical CRO in China. With that investment in our company, we have some additional resources to possibly start another company that can be a product development or product ownership company. We have IP coming mainly out of China, as we have clients that ask us to help develop their IP at a much more intimate level than US clients.
p360: Do you risk share?
RC: We’re looking at some risk-sharing models, for the US as well as Asia, because we have a lot of small startup companies coming to us looking for us to help them through a lot of different phases of drug development. Our service model incorporates all the services that a company would need to go from a lead candidate—after some efficacy data has been generated—all the way through the IND enabling process and clinical research starting with Phase I and some Phase II. So, being in that sweet spot, we interact with a lot of companies that are looking for funding. Part of my job is to vet some of the technology that these companies have and ideally marry them together with investors that I know. We know investors in China and locally here on the east coast, as well, so we know what types of products they may be interested to invest in to gain Chinese market rights or some kind of partial profit sharing. Depending on the stage of the product, we determine if we can marry the two together.
p360: So really, your partnering goals are going to be evolving very quickly as the company evolves.
RC: Yes, and we’re actively partnering. We’re really helping people to partner with one another. The outcome for us is that through those partnerships, we hope to get more service business, as well.
p360: So, being part of a network like partnering360 is beneficial to you, your clients, and the growth of your business?
RC: Right. And that’s the other thing I was looking at with the platform, is how if I see somebody with specific IP that I know some investors are looking to be a part of, then I can also hope to marry them and put that relationship together. With China especially, there’s a language barrier, and there’s also a knowledge market barrier. I don’t speak Chinese but my business partners do. So we overcome that barrier one way or another.
p360: Do you primarily deal with clients in the China market?
RC: Yes, a lot of the investors that we have are from China. Of course we’re keenly interested in the US market because we enable companies to get US FDA approval and Chinese companies are also filing their own IP here in the US to get FDA approval. I would say about 70% of our clients are US-focused clients. We have quite a few European clients as well, so we’re looking to bridge into that market at some point in time. Currently we have offices in both China and the US. In Pennsylvania, we have an office in Exton which is about an hour west of Philadelphia.
p360: How long has Frontage been in business?
RC: Frontage has been in business since 2001 when the company was founded. I am one of the key founding members of the company, and Song Li is the founder. He and I worked together at Wyeth for more than five years before starting Frontage. We started as a bootstrapped company with a few pieces of used equipment such as a used mass spectrometer and used HPLCs, and just two or three people working in lab. From there we built the business with the profits, and we continued to grow exponentially each year. Our first entry into China was in 2006. We put a lab in Shanghai in the Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park following some of our US clients who were starting sites in China. Some of the big pharma companies are located there, as well. So we continued to develop in China and in the US.
In 2008 we received our first private equity investment in the company from Bayard Capital Partners. They gave us USD 10 million, and with that we moved from just labs into the clinical space. We purchased a clinical business, a clinical Phase I unit in Hackensack, New Jersey, that is a Phase I unit that we still operate today. On top of that, we continue to grow the clinical operation. In 2010, when Pfizer purchased Wyeth, we also acquired the DMPK (Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics) leadership team from Wyeth because they were very close, geographically, to us and we knew them from our time at Wyeth. That added a new service area to us, and we just continued to expand. So even though it was a very tenuous time in the pharmaceutical marketplace, we added some of these key services which enabled us to level off and make sure that we stayed of good size and able to grow.
As the equity market started to turn around in 2012, our business has grown 30% each year since 2012. We received the investment from TigerMed last year, and TigerMed has become the majority shareholder of our business. But the way that TigerMed invests in companies, they still leave the leadership team intact, and they’re actually relying on us to continue to grow and build the business, as well as making a larger US footprint. We plan to continue expanding into services that TigerMed offers in China and Southeast Asia here in the United States. Part of our acquisition strategy will be to grow and build our later-phase clinical offerings in the US.
p360: What do you see as your key markets in the US?
RC: We’re continuing to build out. So far this year, we have added a third to our CMC operation, so we increased the size of that laboratory space. Also, we’re constructing another new lab in our bioanalytical area that will double our bioanalytical capacity. And we just opened a brand new clinical operation in Secaucus, New Jersey, a fifteen-minute drive from our older facility, and this is a brand new clinical site.
We’ve grown now to a point where we are a functional service provider to large and midsize pharma in some of the key services. In our bioanalytical operation we have 70 scientists. Compare that to Merck or Pfizer; not even they have teams that size anymore in that service area, because they have all gone through the downsizing process. In just one building, we have that amount of scientists, and they have become a big asset to troubleshoot. When pharma companies come to us with their challenges, we have 20 PhDs out of those 70 all working on the bench who are able to collaborate and solve problems for our clients. Each of our business units have grown now to a sufficient size to be like their own stand-alone business in the marketplace.
Two-thirds of our staff are in the US, and one-third are in China. We have close to 250 people now in the US and this year alone, we’re hiring 60 people just for the US. In China we have about 120 people. I would say by the end of the year we’ll have close to 400 people, and with all of these new labs and expansion, we’re going to add people and equipment. Just in our CMC area we have installed 20 UPLC systems all at one time earlier this year.
p360: Who are your top clients?
RC: On the east coast, between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, we probably about half of the top 20 global pharma giving us business. And some of those companies are stationed up in Boston and some in San Francisco, so if you consider the top companies in those regions, they most likely are our clients today. As well, we have a sales team of about ten that are looking to grow that further.
p360: How do you plan to use your free registration to an EBD Group partnering event?
RC: I have attended ChinaBio® Partnering Forum in the past, and found it to be a very effective event considering our interests in China. Going forward, I am very interested in EBD Group’s European partnering events BIO-Europe® and BIO-Europe Spring® as Europe is a growth market for us. And it would be beneficial to cultivate new business connections resulting from that event in partnering360. It really is a highly effective partnering platform whose function is directly in line with our future goals.