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Emory creates drug venture arm and a new model for de-risking pharma assets

Moving promising therapeutics from university labs into the marketplace is not getting any easier, but an intriguing new model developed at Emory University in Atlanta is attempting to circumvent the development hurdles that doom so many early-stage drug candidates. The approach is not a simple fix, to be sure, as it involves the creation of two nonprofits — one that works within the university, and the other that works outside the university as a wholly-owned subsidiary. But developers believe it is just the combination needed to get important drug discoveries to the point where pharmaceutical companies or venture capitalists might take a chance on them.

Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory (DRIVE) is the focal point of the new effort. Headed by an experienced drug development team, DRIVE is set up as a separate legal entity from Emory so that it can license technologies from Emory or anywhere else, and then bypass all the rules, regulations, and cultural impediments that can make drug development so difficult in a university setting.

“What everybody recognizes is that the culture within the university isn’t exactly focused or appropriate for the sort of team-directed, timeline-driven projects that lead to a product. It is more an infrastructure directed at producing innovative science,” says George Painter, who joined DRIVE as CEO after serving on the management teams of two biotechnology companies, Triangle Pharmaceuticals and Chimerix.

Further, while the IP policies of major research universities reward inventors, they typically don’t have anything to say about drug development, observes Dennis Liotta, a professor at Emory who has been involved with the development of at least ten drugs that have gone on to win FDA approval.

“At most universities, there is no way to even get your money back if you do significant investment in drug development,” he says. “That doesn’t make sense from a process perspective.”

To get around these obstacles, DRIVE works hand-in-hand with the Emory Institute for Drug Development (EIDD), an entity that contains all the infrastructure and personnel needed to bring drugs through early-stage clinical trials, notes Liotta, who heads EIDD as executive director. Painter is EIDD’s president and CEO.

While DRIVE and EIDD share management personnel, EIDD works within the university. “EIDD can apply for funding from the federal government and be focused on some of the same metrics, outputs, and deliverables that a university would be focused on. DRIVE is going to be focused on corporate funding, so it is sort of the outer layer of the onion, and it is going to be most focused on, and most driven by what the marketplace wants,” explains Todd Sherer, the associate vice president for research administration and executive director of technology transfer at Emory.

Such a configuration enables DRIVE to act with more of a commercial tenor, Painter points out. “We can make outside deals to license in technology; we can license out technology; and we can form for-profit spin-outs,” he explains. “So in effect, DRIVE is the business arm and the Emory Institute for Drug Development is the science arm, and taken together they represent an entity that is recognizable as a biotechnology company, but operating in an innovative university environment.” A detailed article on the DRIVE model at Emory appears in the October issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the full article, along with hundreds more in our subscriber-only archive of best practices and TTO success strategies, CLICK HERE

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