t the SelectUSA Investment Summit in Washington, D.C., this fall, a panel discussion on partnering with US universities featured Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson and University of Maryland Vice President and Chief Research Officer Patrick O'Shea, who set the stage.
"The US has had the best higher education system in the world for as long as anyone can remember," said Peterson, noting the nation's responsibility for nearly 28 percent of all R&D expenditure. "But that gap is closing."
With nations such as Brazil, China and Japan bolstering their own systems, he said, "It will become even more critical that institutions of higher education excel, and strengthen relationships between industries and universities."
The corporate leader at center stage was Anne Whitaker, president, pharmaceuticals, for Sanofi North America, part of the French conglomerate whose businesses include Massachusetts-based rare disease biotech firm Genzyme, metro Atlanta-based animal health company Merial and Pennsylvania-based vaccine maker Sanofi Pasteur, which makes 1 million vaccines a year. She said her industry is transforming at the same time higher education is.
"We traditionally have been a company that discovers, develops and distributes biopharma products," said Whitaker, who spent nearly 20 years at GlaxoSmithKline before being appointed to her position at Sanofi in 2011. "But over the past five years, we've changed our innovation model. Disease is changing so rapidly, the human genome is being mapped, and there is so much more to understand, we can't do it all ourselves. So we've transformed our R&D organization to be one that partners about 50 percent of our activity.
"What's important with those partnerships," said Whitaker, is that "in addition to benefiting Sanofi, we want to be part of the health-care ecosystem. In addition, as we think about which communities we'll go into, is the infrastructure — is government supportive? Is there an environment that will reward innovation? Is there a legal system that will protect patents?"
That last metric, she said, "is absolutely critical to what we do. Without good patent protection, it would reduce the amount of innovation we do. We invest $6 billion in R&D, and it would not be possible without good patent coverage.
The stability of US patent laws — 20 years' exclusivity for pharmaceuticals and 12 for biologics — helps. At the same time, Whitaker noted, it's good that universities have allowed their researchers to be inventors, and retain some of their IP. It's "another creative way to keep your best minds in the university," she said. "As we're looking for talent, many times people don't want to give up their tenured or chair position."
Such was the case last year in Massachusetts, where Sanofi worked with venture capital firms Third Rock Ventures and Greylock Partners "to create a biotech company around a Harvard professor who really had a good idea," said Whitaker. The company, Warp Drive Bio, was founded by Third Rock Ventures and world-leading scientist Gregory Verdine, Ph.D., a Harbard professor of chemistry in the department of stem cell and regenerative biology. It was incubated at Third Rock Ventures for two years. The launch and strategic partnership provide Warp Drive Bio with full funding to aggressively advance its core research and development strategy over at least the next five years.
Sanofi's other projects include needle-free injection research with MIT and Georgia Tech, as well as other collaborations. Schools, meanwhile, are just as eager to partner with the company, given its 2010 global R&D investment of nearly $6 billion, backing global sales nearly seven times that figure. In fact, schools are eager to partner with many companies. Georgia Tech's Peterson recalled a recent strategic plan meeting where a lot of talk focused on federally funded research.
"One of our faculty managers asked, 'How many people in the room believe the level of federal support for research is going to increase?' And nobody raised their hand. There's certainly an effort at Georgia Tech to expand relationships with industry-funded research."
"There are a lot of great young minds in the university we would like to access," said Whitaker, noting that the approach varies by project. In the area of diabetes, the company works with the American Diabetes Association to offer funding support for basic research. But it also takes more concrete forms.
"We want to take what we've learned about diabetes from the patient and determine where the brightest minds are in the world to treat diabetes," said Whitaker. "We also look at where the communities are that are supportive of academic institutions and industry coming together, in the tech transfer office as well as the broader community. In Massachusetts we decided to put our research organization in Cambridge as a hub because there were so many companies within walking distance."
Gathered at the River
Indeed, the Cambridge community nestled along the banks of the Charles River is Exhibit A for the ecosystem approach, as multiple institutions contribute to and benefit from the presence of Genzyme. In September Sanofi and Genzyme announced a new partnership and $1-million gift to support student success programs in the University of Massachusetts Boston’s College of Science and Mathematics (CSM).
“We thank and recognize Sanofi and Genzyme for sharing our vision for student success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM] and for their partnership with UMass Boston students and the future of Greater Boston,” said Chancellor J. Keith Motley. “This investment in UMass Boston students by Genzyme and Sanofi, which extends an existing partnership, represents an outstanding example of how collaboration between a public higher education institution and a major corporation can have a significant impact on developing a vibrant STEM work force.”
The College of Science and Mathematics has developed a highly successful program for advancing student success in STEM majors. This program revamped advising, academic support, and orientation, and developed a learning community program as the centerpiece of this strategy. Retention in the program is more than 15 points above the college’s preexisting levels, with large increases of students remaining in STEM majors.
Whitaker, speaking at the SelectUSA discussion, put the UMass Boston gift in context, emphasizing the program's focus on freshman success:
"I was a chemistry major, and organic chemistry was used to weed out people," she noted to nods from the audience. "The freshman success program works to help people stay."
With Sanofi and Genzyme’s support, CSM Dean Andrew Grosovsky plans to expand the student success program and develop new opportunities for undergraduate and graduate research.
“CSM has experienced dramatic increases in enrollment and is a minority-majority college with large numbers of first-generation and low-income students," said Grosovsky in September. "Since the retention and academic performance has been so strong, we are on track to greatly increase the number and diversity of STEM graduates."
The announcement of the gift was made at the opening of Sanofi’s new R&D facility at 640 Memorial Drive in Cambridge, which will be focused on cancer research. The opening came about 18 months after Genzyme had announced it was restructuring global R&D (including shuttering its R&D site in Cambridge, UK) and consolidating research operations at centers in Germany, France, Asia and Massachusetts. It also came about 10 days after Genzyme, responding to Cambridge-area residents' concerns, agreed not to place a neon sign atop the building.
The building in Cambridge, Mass., restored by Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2011, was once home to assembly lines of the Ford Motor Co., as well as for Polaroid. Sanofi leases half the complex, where it employs approximately 230 of the 5,000 people it employs in Massachusetts as a whole, including some transferred from a closed research site in New Jersey.
Other MIT-renovated properties include a facility on Main Street in Cambridge's Kendall Square neighborhood where Pfizer is developing a multidisciplinary research complex; a 54,000-sq.-ft. lab building on Brookline Street; and a larger-scale expansion of University Park along a dilapidated portion of Massachusetts Avenue in partnership with developer Forest City, expected to be complete in 2016 and mostly occupied by the expanding research programs of life sciences firm Millennium/Takeda.
As reported by The Boston Globe the day of the Genzyme grand opening, Sanofi's 2011 purchase of Genzyme for $20.1 billion has paid off by adding $40 billion in market value at the same time it increased Sanofi's presence in the United States. Meanwhile, Sanofi continues to cultivate area institutional ties with companies such as Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and Merrimack Pharmaceuticals and with such medical institutions as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Joslin Diabetes Center and Massachusetts General Hospital, where in fall 2012 the company cemented an oncology research agreement.
“As we build our R&D presence in the Boston area, Sanofi is becoming part of the region’s vibrant biomedical ecosystem, expanding our network beyond our own walls through innovative collaborations with top external research teams,” said Elias Zerhouni, M.D., president, Global Research & Development, Sanofi, last fall. "This research collaboration with Massachusetts General Hospital exemplifies how we are leveraging these relationships in a translational and experimental medicine approach to drug discovery and clinical development — one that combines and complements our collective understanding of complex disease, expertise in biological science, and deep knowledge of medicines to help accelerate delivery of treatments to patients with unmet medical needs."
Are the institutional ties paying off with corporate facility investment? You be the judge. Last month, Genzyme, which has been steadily investing in its facilities in nearby Framingham over the past two years, announced it would invest $80 million in a new downstream processing facility for Fabrazyme® (agalsidase beta). The new plant will be located adjacent to the new Fabrazyme cell culture manufacturing site in Framingham (which received regulatory approval in 2012), and will significantly expand purification capacity to support anticipated growth in global demand over the coming years.