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11 December 2017

Lab150 – a new paradigm in drug discovery

The initiative, launched by Mars Innovation and Evotec in September 2017, seeks to bridge academic research, translation and commercialisation.

Author: Rafi Hofstein, president and CEO of Mars Innovation, and Werner Lanthaler, president and CEO of Evotec

Research never stops – and unfortunately, neither does the quest for meaningful funding of promising scientific discoveries. It takes patience and steadfast financial backing to bring the many significant academic discoveries to a market-ready state where commercialisation can happen. While grant funding is available for academic research, researchers are often told by venture capitalists or pharmaceutical companies that their science is “too early” to be financed. This is true in Canada as well as in other parts of the world.

Such crucial lack of funding is a persistent impediment of promising biomedical research to reach clinical development and eventually the global marketplace. But, funding is not the only ingredient needed for a positive result: specialised infrastructure and stellar drug development expertise are both vitally important to translate disease-related biological pathways into focused drug discovery programs.

Rafi Hofstein has been at the helm of commercialisation firm Mars Innovation (MI) since its inception in 2009 and is intimately familiar with the “valley of death” pitfalls in the Canadian commercialisation landscape. The members of Mars Innovation are 15 world-class academic institutions and research hospitals, including University of Toronto and its nine affiliated teaching hospitals – representing more than $1.5bn in research. Searching for novel ways to ensure a high rate of success for the brilliant scientific discoveries coming out of this cluster of academic research facilities, Hofstein invited representatives of Evotec to visit Toronto in early 2016 to learn more about the early-stage projects in MI’s technology pipeline.

Through discussions between MI and the Evotec team led by chief executive Werner Lanthaler, it quickly became apparent to both parties that there was a real common ground between them, both in their approach to commercialisation and also in areas of complementary expertise – a vibrant, symbiotic collaboration started to take shape.

With its 2,000 employees, Evotec has a wealth of experience in early-stage drug discovery at an industrial level – not just in functional areas such as target identification, high-throughput screening, lead optimisation, toxicology, chemistry, and so on, but also in significant disease areas such as oncology, neuroscience, cardiovascular and infectious diseases.

This range of know-how would fit very well with rich library of scientific disclosures available to MI through its members as well as MI’s deep understanding of effective company formation. In addition, the meeting came at an opportune time as Lanthaler wanted to bring all of these areas together under Evotec’s new Bridge program. Evotec was – and still is – seeking partnerships across all biotechnology innovation hubs, and in early 2017 they teamed up with MI, choosing Toronto as the optimal venue for its first North American partnership. This was a testament not only to MI’s novel approach to commercialisation, but also to the quality of science and innovation of MI’s member institutions. Supported by financial contributions from both partners, the newly formed five-year partnership, Lab150, will accelerate the development and commercialisation of Canadian-born therapies, delivered globally.

Evotec has been working on another such Bridge partnership with University of Oxford for more than a year, Lab282. Both Bridges are similar in that they bring together a university, a financing partner and Evotec to combine their expertise in academic research, industrial-scale early-stage drug discovery, financing and company building. The goal of these new partnership models is to significantly shorten the drug discovery timeline; to generate viable startups with high potential for success; and to combine strengths and address the challenges of effectively translating biomedical research into drug development and commercialisation opportunities.

MI leverages its academic members to identify projects and build technical and business cases from scientific concepts that focus on first-in-class and disease-related novel biological pathways. Evotec will contribute infrastructure and pre-clinical drug development expertise to translate such discoveries into potential medicines. Once the partners select a project under the Lab150/Bridge umbrella, the academic researchers and Evotec scientists agree on a work plan. The work is conducted at Evotec in Germany and at the academic institutions in Ontario, with the results being shared among all the scientists on the project. At that point, if the project is successful, MI and Evotec will consider creating a company around the technology.

Apart from MI’s strong connection to its members, the organisation also brings significant experience in company formation to the table. This process will allow for an accelerated early-stage drug discovery process; it is estimated that, for now, three to five projects per year will go through the selection and development process.

Timing is definitely right for Lab150, the name of which incidentally commemorates Canada’s 150th anniversary this year. With one company already successfully launched – Fibrocor Therapeutics, developing first-in-class therapeutics targeting fibrotic diseases – Evotec and MI are building on a strong foundation. The Lab150 partnership offers a dramatic reduction of search costs for capital for the first translational work packages of academic science, early validation of experiments and industry-proven drug discovery processes.

Both Werner Lanthaler and Rafi Hofstein are very optimistic that this collaboration will add a highly valuable new tool to the Canadian ecosystem of innovation and in the process, reduce the number of scientific discoveries that currently do not make it through the under-funded birth-to-commercialisation process.

Lab150 represents an extraordinary opportunity for Canada to bridge the drug discovery gap with the objective of stimulating the formation of new ventures in Ontario, and of developing ground-breaking therapies to benefit Canadians and others around the world. And, through such innovative, international partnerships, smarter processes and accelerated pathways to market, there is a real chance to make the “valley of death” a distant memory!

Rafi Hofstein, president and CEO of Mars Innovation (left, sitting), and Werner Lanthaler, CEO of Evotec (right, sitting), surrounded by Ontario’s Minister of Research, Innovation and Science, Minister Reza Moridi (standing, right) and the chair of Mars Innovation, Tim Penner (standing, left) at the Lab150 signing ceremony.

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