Merck Serono: FIT for partnering and playing with the home court advantage

October 20, 2014 ctheodoropulos

Susan Herbert holds the home court advantage for BIO-Europe® 2014 in Frankfurt. Merck Serono is located in Darmstadt, just south of the conference site, and as the Executive VP for Global Business Development and Alliance Management there, she plans to direct an impressive array of her resources to focus on the largest partnering meeting for the life sciences in Europe. Her responsibilities for Merck Serono include licensing, business development and alliance management supporting Merck’s external opportunities across commercial, development, research and platform technologies with external partners. She is also a member of the Pharmaceutical Executive Committee, and responsible for the Merck Serono Venture Fund.

“BIO-Europe presents a unique opportunity for us this year as it is coming to the heart of Merck country,” said Herbert. “We will be very visible, starting with the plenary session on the Monday with Luciano Rossetti, our Global Head of Research & Development. We will participate in panel discussions and sessions, and will enrich the exhibition with the Merck Serono booth. We will have 10 to 15 people from Business Development on the ground. We will have additional people from our Venture Fund team, MS Ventures, as well as our Scientific Innovation Team, responsible for scouting. On top, some of my senior executive colleagues will join us for a private evening reception to which we will bring as well some of our leading scientists. With our senior management and all these specialists on hand, BIO-Europe represents an opportunity for very productive dialogue with new companies and potential partners, as well as strategic updates with our existing partners with more than  100 ongoing strategic collaborations and alliances there with us during BIO-Europe.”

Susan Herbert, Executive Vice President, Head of Global Business Development and Alliance Management at Merck Serono, and Member of the Pharmaceutical Executive Committee Merck Serono

Susan Herbert, Executive VP, Head of Global Business Development and Alliance Management at Merck Serono, and Member of the Pharmaceutical Executive Committee Merck Serono

partneringNEWS (pN): Can you update us on how things are going for Merck Serono?

Sue Herbert (SH): Merck, a leading company for innovative and top-quality high-tech products not only in the pharmaceutical industry, but as well in the chemical and life-science sector, is well on track with its pharma business which shows solid organic sales growth. Nevertheless, for the whole industry, our current landscape presents challenges, and we all have to face the same high pressure in this highly competitive arena.

What makes us strong is our successful transformation journey along the program we launched two years ago called “Fit for 2018.” In that year we will mark the 350th anniversary of Merck, celebrating that we are the oldest successful pharmaceutical and chemical company in the world.

The Fit for 2018 program has now moved to a second phase. In the first phase we worked on processes and efficiencies to be sure the company was fit moving forward. Now that this is assured, in the second wave, focusing on growth, the door is wide open to innovative ideas, products and technologies. We are FIT for partnering.

pN: What is your priority for partnering?

SH: In principle, we are interested in opportunities—spanning from promising drug candidates up to technology platforms—that will support our strategic business objectives, and strengthen our pipeline, our key franchises, and our geographic presence.

Late preclinical candidates, early clinical stage assets—particularly in the oncology and immunology space—are certainly a sweet spot for us. Yet, this is a highly competitive area and what makes a tough game even more delicate, even a bit tricky at this moment, is that with the financial markets being much more open than they have been in years, startup companies and biotechs have other ways to advance their programs than partnering with pharma. Some are able to move their molecule to a later value inflection point even before they start to look for a partner. But we are as well in continuous talks with those companies that are not ready to partner yet. Continuity in talks increases trust, and we are happy to provide advice where we see a need for further development of a company to reach this degree of maturity.

pN: In oncology you recently announced a collaboration to co-develop anti-cancer drugs with the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London and Wellcome Trust. What does this tell us about your approach?

SH: I especially like this one from a business development perspective. It is a way of looking at doing partnering differently. If you were to go back a few years, business development was all about licensing a molecule and or asset from a small company or an academic partner. Basically big pharma would come along and license the life out of a program to bring it straight into the own company portfolio. These days pharma is much more about partnering. With the ICR we have a collaboration built around the pathways to tankyrase that goes beyond other models. Instead of putting our tankyrase work in a box and hiding it from competing programs, we have created an elegant collaboration, a very trusting collaboration with ICR that has its own tankyrase program. Now we have a joint compound base of potent molecules, have brought together the best scientists and brains in this area with the aim to bring the best drug jointly forward into the clinic.

pN: So your model for partnering has shifted?

SH: Let’s take as an example a deal around an investigational drug we are interested in. All of us in pharma have learned that making a deal and taking the molecule from the partner means leaving behind a lot of expertise—that molecule is their baby.

As a result, today more often than in the past, most partners are highly interested in seeing their drug evolve, and contributing to its further development. From our perspective, their expertise is quite valuable. Given the common interests on both sides, we strive to enrich and supplement the knowledge of our expert teams, with the knowledge of our partners.

pN: What are other changes you see to partnering in life sciences?

SH: It is not the world of two years ago where it was signing with a pharma partner or bust. There is also pressure on pharma partners for speed. From the point where we have identified something that really fills a gap in the portfolio or hits a sweet spot for our strategic objectives, we need to move quickly to secure a deal. These days we need to be fast on our feet, convincing the potential partner company that we are the best fit, before the company elaborates further alternatives.

pN: Can big pharma really be so nimble in closing an agreement?

SH: After the signatures and the announcement in the press, there is still a lot of work going on behind the scenes for the business development professionals, the legal team, and the commercial teams to continue developing the partnership.

Five years ago there may have been a single 60 to 100 page agreement. Today deals become rather more complex. The agreement that is announced is not going to be the one-and-only agreement between the partners. There will be sub-agreements, separate commercialization agreements, separate co-promotion and co-marketing agreements that are developed and elaborated further. There may be development deals where partners decide on a parallel development of a drug candidate in different indications, each headed by one of the partners. We have such an agreement with Threshold who continued to lead the soft tissue sarcoma indication with Merck assuming responsibility for pancreatic cancer.

This has introduced, shall we say, a new level of sophistication in agreements. You either need to spell these things out, or build very early a level of trust with the partner company, acknowledging that we can not anticipate everything on the first day that the ink is drying on the agreement. You don’t want to spend forever trying to get everything perfect on a single agreement. If you spend all your time in Business Development getting every piece of the agreement in place, it is lost time for the researchers, the clinicians, the medical teams that want to get started moving forward together.

And we should not forget that there are many people in the world suffering from diseases with a high medical need. This is the true challenge and our ultimate goal—bringing value to patients in need.


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