AZ, J&J and GSK team up with universities to create ‘Apollo Therapeutics’

AstraZeneca (AZ), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Johnson & Johnson Innovation have unveiled a new collaboration with three of the UK’s top universities to help accelerate groundbreaking academic science into the clinic.

Each of the three pharma companies will contribute £10 million over six years to the venture, and will work closely with the technology transfer offices (TTOs) of Imperial College London, University College London and the University of Cambridge.

The universities will each contribute £3.3 million, bringing the total size of the fund to £40 million. To be named the Apollo Therapeutics Fund, the joint venture will support the translation of ground-breaking academic science from within the universities into innovative new medicines for a broad range of diseases.

The number of collaborations on translational research between pharma and university researchers has exploded in recent years, as companies have disinvested from basic in-house research, seeking to tap the expertise of universities instead.

The initiative is unlike any previous deals, which mostly involve exclusive deals between one university and one pharma company. The Apollo fund is the first ever to pool resources of three heavyweight pharma companies and three of the UK’s leading universities.

The rivalry between the pharma companies (and indeed between the universities) has been put aside – the partners clearly viewing the size of the pooled resource as helping them all to access promising ideas earlier.

Dr Ian Tomlinson, former Senior Vice President, Worldwide Business Development and Biopharmaceuticals R&D, for GSK and founder & Chief Scientific Officer of Domantis has been appointed Chairman of the Apollo Therapeutics Investment Committee (AIC). Comprising representatives from the six partners, the AIC will make all investment decisions.

The AIC will be advised by an independent Drug Discovery Team (DDT) of ex-industry scientists who will be employed by Apollo to work with the universities and their TTOs to identify and shape projects to bring forward for development. All therapy areas and modalities, including small molecules, peptides, proteins, antibodies, cell and gene therapies will be considered.

Apollo will have its base at the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst, a biotech hub established in 2012 with the help of GSK, which has a research centre nearby. Once funded, projects will be progressed by the DDT alongside the university investigators, with other external resources and also in-kind resources from the industry partners as appropriate.

For successful projects, the originating university and TTO will receive a percentage of future commercial revenues or out-licensing fees and the remainder will be divided amongst all the Apollo partners.

Dr Ian Tomlinson, Chairman of the Apollo Therapeutics Investment Committee, commented: “This is the first time that three global pharmaceutical companies and the TTOs of three of the world’s top ten universities have come together to form a joint enterprise of this nature, making the Apollo Therapeutics Fund a truly innovative venture.

“Apollo provides an additional source of early-stage funding that will allow more therapeutics projects within the three universities to realise their full potential. The active participation of the industry partners will also mean that projects will be shaped at a very early stage to optimise their suitability for further development.

“The Apollo Therapeutics Fund should benefit the UK economy by increasing the potential for academic research to be translated into new medicines for patients the world over.”

Tony Hickson, Managing Director Technology Transfer, Imperial Innovations, said the consortium was ‘truly ground-breaking’ and would speed the translation of novel academic research from laboratories to patients.

He added: “This an important new source of capital to progress IP from the outstanding research of these three world-class universities. We believe that the Apollo Therapeutics Fund will ultimately lead to the delivery of new medicines faster and cheaper, as well as generating new deal flow and licensing opportunities.”

It is no surprise that it is AZ, GSK and Johnson & Johnson who have forged this partnership. AZ and GSK have their global headquarters and R&D bases in the UK, and have been expanding the number of UK alliances in recent years. Johnson & Johnson doesn’t have its own R&D base in the UK, but set up its Innovation Centre in London in 2013, one of a number of hubs aimed at finding and funding exciting research projects in global innovation hotspots.

Richard Mason, Head, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, London said: “The Apollo Therapeutics Fund creates a unique ecosystem of world-class universities and global pharmaceutical leaders, with the ability to advance some of our region’s most promising science and technology from the critical early phases through to novel patient solutions. By combining our resources and sharing risk, we will propel research that can catalyse transformative healthcare solutions worldwide.”

How the consortium will work

So how will the consortium work, most especially when a compound emerges which one or more of the pharma companies is interested in developing?  A spokesperson for AstraZeneca tells pharmaphorum that the three pharma companies will each be invited to submit a competitive bid for the commercialisation rights.

The decision on which offer to pick (if any) will be made with the view to generating the best overall return for fund members and the university which originated the project.

This puts the universities in the advantageous position of potentially fielding three bids for a molecule, which could help push up the value of the deal. At the same time, the trio of companies will have much greater insight into the consortium’s pipeline of molecules, which could allow better informed decisions on licensing the candidates. The venture could prove to be a fertile source of new molecules, and provide the pharma companies with an alternative to deals with biotech firms; the market for in-licensing compounds has seen deal prices rise in recent years, as big pharma companies increases its reliance on external innovation.

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