Academia, Big Pharma Find Collaboration Fruitful

By David Sell
The Philadelphia Inquirer.


Elizabeth Grice, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor, embodies the new way academia and drug companies collaborate on research to generate cash for schools and profitable medicines for manufacturers.

Grice, like many researchers, gets most of her funding from government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, and also foundations. Like some, she also is doing work for a for-profit pharmaceutical company, in her case, Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

What’s changed in recent years is the nature of that academic-industry relationship.

Newer academia-industry agreements involve more frequent communication and milestones for completing tasks.

“They are very focused on deliverables and less on the process of how you got there,” Grice said, referring to Janssen’s goal-oriented emphasis. “Whereas, in academia, it’s like, ‘Oh, you discovered this cool thing along the way and there is a whole separate story,’ they are very focused on what is in the contract.”

With urging from Penn President Amy Gutmann, Penn changed focus in 2014. The Center for Technology Transfer became the Penn Center for Innovation. Laurie Actman was hired to be chief operating officer and spur more corporate engagement.

“Traditionally, these were very transactional,” Actman said of partnerships. “Universities owned a patent. They were sort of looking to throw the technology over the wall. The future of the business relationship is taking down the wall and being jointly engaged.”

Data from the Association of University Technology Managers show that Penn’s overall research funded by the federal government fell by 11 percent the last four years, going from $786 million to $697 million, while industry funding rose in the last two years from $55.4 million in 2013 to $77.3 million in 2014.

Drugmakers’ in-house research is producing fewer drugs with blockbuster revenue, so they are more inclined to look outside the company. Universities and their researchers, faced with cuts in government money through the National Institutes of Health, have been quicker to conduct research beyond the pure pursuit of knowledge.

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