MedCity Influencers, BioPharma

How small biotech companies can make the most out of today’s deal-making landscape

For small biotech companies that are always raising money, business development is a critical next step. Joining with a credible partner goes a long way in validating technology and platforms and gives small biotech companies the runway needed to grow.

Deal-making in oncology remains a hot area, primarily driven by the immuno-oncology space. The year 2020 was a landmark year for investment in biotech and pharma, with oncology generating a large portion of the deal-making ($133 billion). In 2021, oncology-focused deals accounted for a large proportion of global biopharma licensing, collaborations, and joint venture transactions. Cancer’s dominance is clear and more deals should be expected this year—especially with biological technologies as key drivers—but is there a secret formula to navigating this intensely competitive oncology deal-making landscape and securing the right partners and collaborators? What are the key trends in today’s deal-making environment? And finally, will this level of deal-making continue to rise?

One trend that will persist is the impact that science is making on people’s lives. My experience working in rare diseases at Pfizer, and then in oncology at Affimed, had one essential fact in common: There is a huge amount of gratification in doing work that is so meaningful, even if there is a disparity of investment. Investment in rare diseases lag behind that in oncology but thankfully, that’s changing. However, business development (BD) in rare diseases and oncology share similarities. First, it’s necessary. Second, it’s built on an open, honest relationship.

Credible business development

For small biotech companies that are always raising money, business development is a critical next step. Joining with a credible partner goes a long way in validating technology and platforms and gives small biotech companies the runway needed to grow. It is true that for small biotech companies today, it is more challenging than it was five years ago. With the number of biotech IPOs slowing down from its record pace, fundraising has gotten more difficult, and biotech companies are scrambling for much-needed investor dollars.

The good news is that the landscape is ripe for collaboration. The importance of high-value partnerships has increased. wWith Big Pharma eager to fill their pipeline, fueled by metrics driving external innovation, there is more openness for partnership over purchase. This allows assets to be grown together while risk is being shared by both parties. My experience has been that the current environment is fostering a BD exchange that will continue to fuel growth and innovation, which is good for biotech and good for the patient.

Relationship is Foundational

Fostering a healthy business development relationship is essential for maximizing outcomes. These partnerships need to be built on trust and candor, because at the end of the day, you are essentially on the same team. Leading with self-interest can actually get in the way of creative solutions.

Getting around issues that the partner company is struggling with and what the concerns are is vital. Being privy to the problem they are trying to solve can help you solve it for them. To do this, it’s important to be able to put everything on the table. I’ve learned this from being on both sides—Big Pharma and now at a small biotech. While working at Big Pharma, I would want a small biotech partner to be someone I could trust. This is the hard work that pays off, and if you can’t do that with your BD partner, then often, it’s better to make a change.

The trends in oncology treatments

The market is increasingly waking up to the opportunity that innate immune therapeutics have. Several years ago, the focus was on T-cells, and now companies are looking to improve those therapies. There was a time when not many wanted to touch cell therapy. Now that is changing, and companies like Gilead, Merck, Takeda, Sanofi, and Astellas have all started to add innate cell engagers as well as NK cellular approaches to their pipeline, using in-house modality platforms to create immunological treatment methods.

Similarly, PD-1 and PDL-1 were very popular with everyone getting into the space. Now, companies need a differentiator for their PD-1/PDL-1 and are looking to collaborate, which is promising in terms of business development for small and medium-sized biotech companies. These developments, along with combination therapies and next-generation treatments including RNA technologies and cell therapeutics, illustrate that with the right approach to business development, the horizon looks promising for small biotech and Big Pharma alike.

Photo: NicolasMe, Getty Images

Denise Mueller is currently the Chief Business Officer and Member of the Management Board at Affimed, an international biotech company. She has built a strong reputation for developing high-impact strategies, structures, teams, and alliances that have fueled business results, driven impact to stock value, and created market expansion across multiple therapeutic areas. In her current role, within the last 2 ½ years Denise led the capture of $156M in up-front cash payments through business development and advanced the company’s position as a pioneer in immuno-oncology. She secured strategic collaborations with Genentech and Roivant, in addition to clinical and pre-clinical collaborations with Merck, Roche, NKMax, and Artiva. Concurrently, as the President of Affimed US, Denise built the US organization to operationalize and scale the business. Denise has been instrumental in architecting and implementing the global corporate culture framework to strengthen cohesiveness of teams in multiple countries.

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