We’ve all been hearing for a while about “virtual biotechs”. The term usually refers to a company with only a handful of employees and no real laboratory space of its own. All the work is contracted out. That means that what’s left back at the tiny headquarters (which in a couple of cases is as small as one person’s spare bedroom) is the IP. What else could it be? There’s hardly any physical property at all. It’s as pure a split as you can get between intellectual property (ideas, skills, actual patents) and everything else. Here’s a 2010 look at the field in San Diego, and here’s a more recent look from Xconomy. (I last wrote about the topic here).
Obviously, this gets easier to do earlier in the whole drug development process, where less money is involved. That said, there are difficulties at both ends. A large number of these stories seem to involve people who were at a larger company when it ran out of money, but still had some projects worth looking at. The rest of the cases seem to come out of academia. In other words, the ideas themselves (the key part of the whole business) were generated somewhere with more infrastructure and funding. Trying to get one of these off the ground otherwise would be a real bootstrapping problem.
And at the other end of the process, getting something all the way through the clinic like this also seems unlikely. The usual end point is licensing out to someone with more resources, as this piece from Xconomy makes clear:
In the meantime, one biotech model gaining traction is the single asset, infrastructure-lite, development model, which deploys modest amounts of capital to develop a single compound to an early clinical data package which can be partnered with pharma. The asset resides within an LLC, and following the license transaction, the LLC is wound down and distributes the upfront, milestone and royalty payments to the LLC members on a pro rata basis. The key to success in this model is choosing the appropriate asset/indication – one where it is possible to get to a clinical data package on limited capital. This approach excludes many molecules and indications often favored by biotech, and tends to drive towards clinical studies using biomarkers – directly in line with one of pharma’s favored strategies.
This is a much different model, of course, than the “We’re going to have an IPO and become our own drug company!” one. But the chances of that happening have been dwindling over the years, and the current funding environment makes it harder than ever, Verastem aside. It’s even a rough environment to get acquired in. So licensing is the more common path, and (as this FierceBiotech story says), that’s bound to have an effect on the composition of the industry. People aren’t holding on to assets for as long as they used to, and they’re trying to get by with as little of their own money as they can. Will we end up with a “field of fireflies” model, with dozens, hundreds of tiny companies flickering on and off? What will the business look like after another ten years of this – better, or worse?