Guest Column | September 14, 2023

How Strategically Partnering With Academia Supports Biotech R&D Goals

By Ryan Confer, chief financial officer, Genprex


Advances in science, particularly in nanotechnology and biotechnology, over the last two decades have helped to advance treatment paradigms to provide more personalized therapeutic approaches for patients. Unfortunately, the extremely high costs and long development times associated with commercializing cell and gene therapies represent a significant barrier to entry for new biotech companies.

Another challenge that early-stage biotech companies may face is large, broad market movements, which can impact funding opportunities and returns on investment (ROI). According to a study by Deloitte, the projected ROI in pharmaceutical R&D fell from 6.8% in 2021 to 1.2% in 2022, the lowest ROI recorded in the 13 years that Deloitte has been conducting this study.

Partnering with leading academic institutions, however, can help biotech firms cut costs and boost the returns on their R&D investments while making key research and industry connections that can assist in the development, and ultimate commercialization, of their technologies. Over the last 15 years, I've come to understand the benefits of academic collaboration with private enterprises from both perspectives and believe that these relationships assist in the greater impact of local or regional economic development.

Why Partner With Academia?

Benefits For Biotechs

A common phrase among venture capitalists is “cash is king.” This phrase is especially critical in the early stages of biotechnology drug development.

No matter how promising a gene therapy is, the long development timelines and large R&D expenditures require companies to effectively allocate resources to develop and ultimately reach their goal of commercializing their therapies. A key challenge for developers of disruptive technologies, like cell and gene therapies, is that cutting-edge technologies usually require cutting-edge resources in the form of advanced equipment or processes, researchers or staff with advanced or sophisticated knowledge, and advanced testing or analytical capabilities. As a result, traditional or custom-built lab space or specialized recruitment may not be cost-effective at such early stages of development.

Enter academia, a landing place for early-stage entities to leverage preclinical or clinical lab space and scientific or research expertise. Sponsoring research at a university that’s aligned and specified to the company’s research interests provides a win/win scenario for both parties.

The biotech company wins by reducing the need for customized lab space or certain scientific personnel and leveraging existing research by the faculty and their collective understanding in the field to advance their program. University faculty are well-connected with other thought leaders or independent research organizations around the world. Many of these faculty members attend the same annual conferences and publish research alongside other well-known experts and thought leaders in the space. Working with academia provides biotech companies with the advantage of being in the know when it comes to cutting-edge academic research and advancements while being associated with their academic partners’ advancements.

Biotech sponsors can drive research focus to better understand or solve key early-stage technical questions and can potentially benefit from peer-reviewed articles at the conclusion of the studies. In return for financial support, sponsors can negotiate to receive first access to any new intellectual property developed in the collaboration, which usually has a direct impact on their development program.

Benefits For The University

The university wins by having industry support to advance its existing programs and enabling faculty members, along with their university affiliation, to publish in scientific journals to maintain their status as academic and translational thought leaders in emerging areas. Sponsored research helps to offset research costs, which may assist with budgetary limitations or provide resources for faculty and staff to explore advanced topical areas for which funds cannot be acquired through conventional means.

Shared Benefits

These partnerships provide university researchers and biotech firms with valuable mutual benefits, including:

  • Financial Gain: Both parties share in pushing the technology or industry forward, and they also usually share in the vested interest of any advancements in intellectual property developed out of this relationship, which can help foster an ongoing relationship to continue research.
  • Workforce Development At The University Level Means Better Workers Entering Biotech: Ultimately, this relationship has a positive economic development impact as it relates to workforce development and direct industry-based experience for graduates involved in these research programs. While a private company may seek out expertise of one specific university researcher as the lead investigator for a study, the research is usually carried out in coordination with multiple staff members and students. Sponsored research can also help to fund highly advanced postdoctoral positions. The impact of this work results in faculty and students being involved in industry-driven research and technology development, which may be beneficial both for the reputation of the academic programs and job placement for students involved in the research. This is further advantageous to the company as it becomes an integral component in helping to build the labor force and recognition around their development programs centered on young, talented, and inquisitive minds in the field.
  • More Communication Channels To Spread The Word About Your Work: While universities have historically focused on peer-reviewed scientific journals and publications, private companies may have access to greater communication channels to expand the reach of published work to audiences outside the scientific community. Medical and industry conferences provide ample opportunities for collaborative presentations on research findings where key opinion leaders, industry experts, financiers, or academic thought leaders may be in attendance, which could open further doors to future collaboration opportunities for both parties.
  • Greater Credibility In Industry & Among Peers: An important factor of university and private enterprise collaboration is credibility in the research area. Early-stage biotech firms seek further scientific credibility across their industry, and university researchers want further credibility among their peers. Sponsored research offers the opportunity to expand this credibility for both parties through publications in reputable journals, which are peer-reviewed, and access to industry trade shows or conference presentations. This validation in the field is powerful for both parties for their respective strategic needs.

Best Practices For Collaborating With Academia

I spent the early part of my career working on economic development initiatives that had impact on technology transfer and commercialization, which came directly from academia or sponsored academic research. Many of the top-tier universities boast very strong research programs that may be open to industry collaboration. However, translating that research from an academic setting to a commercially focused setting usually requires working effectively with various university departments.

Typically, research relationships between academia and industry start with the licensing of a core technology invented by the researcher that the industry partner has an interest in developing. Sponsored research by the industry partner provides the financial support to the inventor and his/her laboratory to further elucidate the technology. While this scientific expertise is crucial, other factors should be considered when choosing an academic partner to ensure long-term success. Selecting an appropriate university for a research partner is a lot like hiring a full-time employee, and one should consider key elements.

Research Capabilities

In addition to scientific expertise, a company should also consider the laboratory or space available for their research and the number and capabilities of lab personnel, including faculty, staff, and students or post-doctorates. Additionally, understanding existing research commitments or competing workloads is useful to set expectations on timing. Beyond general research capabilities, it is important to maintain strong communication with the research department, as this is critical if or when technology or knowledge needs to be transferred for development purposes.

Office of Technology Transfer or Commercialization

Most research universities have a dedicated office related to ensuring the protection, marketing, and licensing of new technology discoveries. Usually, agreements to sponsor research allow a company to have first access or rights to negotiate new discoveries out of those programs, providing the company the benefit of bolstering its intellectual property position in the core technology. It is useful for companies to understand the processes for new discoveries from their research partner, including filing of invention disclosures with this office and intellectual property review, filing, and prosecution processes. It is also useful to maintain strong relationships with this office to ensure that expectations of commercialization of any new discoveries are understood so that strong, milestone-driven agreements can be negotiated on any new intellectual property.

Business Development Liaison

The creation of business development or industry relations liaison positions within universities has become more commonplace over the last decade. These individuals usually have a strong industry background and maintain constant interaction with industry and business contacts related to key technologies or research programs maintained by the university. A strong relationship with these individuals is very useful as they may have access to additional industry expertise, resources, or connections that may be useful for strategically advancing your corporate initiatives.

Administrative Communications Department

Every business wants to leverage positive developments and press announcements to their advantage. However, this can be tricky with university research programs. Researchers and faculty typically desire the right to first publish any new data in peer-reviewed journals or publications. Further, universities may have specific policies on what and how information can be released about the university or programs and may even have a process for reviewing and approving any outside press releases. Understanding these processes and needs is critical for both setting expectations on timing and adhering to policies to ensure efficient review.

Grants and Contracts

Larger universities typically have a separate department that manages grants and contracts. In those instances, having a relationship with the contract manager is very useful as a point of contact for changes in your research plan. Additionally, a good relationship with a grants manager can be useful if you identify collaborative external grant opportunities that may require university collaboration to apply. For any external awards, grant managers can serve as a resource for compliance with any grant reporting requirements.

In our case at Genprex, we’ve licensed gene therapy technologies discovered by leading researchers at globally renowned institutions that have included research components, and we have licensed additional technologies further elucidating the core inventions. These have been the backbone of our cancer and diabetes programs. Careful consideration of our partners and their capabilities has been integral to moving our programs forward.

There's No One-Size-Fits-All Approach

The most successful partnerships utilize each party's unique strengths.

Genprex recently announced an exclusive license agreement for a worldwide, exclusive license to a patent application and related technology. The agreement also includes a non-exclusive license to use related knowledge and expertise in connection with a gene therapy for type 1 and type 2 diabetes. The technology utilizes the genes of the Pdx1 and MafA transcription factors controlled by a MafB promoter.

Consider leveraging expertise through further research conducted by your academic partners. For us at Genprex, the result of this research has led to new technology discoveries that we have licensed and incorporated in our development programs. While this model has worked well for Genprex, your company may wish to use other collaborative models to advance your research programs.

These other collaborative models may include establishing your own research institutions with university affiliations aimed at blending innovation with the expertise found at major pharmaceutical companies. For example, the Novartis Research Foundation is closely affiliated with multiple academic institutions, including the University of California, San Diego; The Scripps Research Institute; and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Another collaborative approach may be forming or joining a consortium of like-minded or interested companies to help fund research at public universities to advance a major industry or market need. In the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, this is particularly useful to support major public health concerns. When COVID-19 quickly spread around the world, broad industry and academic partnerships led to vaccines being developed much faster than any other vaccine had ever been developed before.

Partnerships With Academia On The Rise

One research study found that R&D partnerships between universities and the broader industry contributed up to $187 billion to the U.S. GDP between 1996 and 2007. According to Nature, the number of partnerships between corporate and academic or government institutions more than doubled between 2012 and 2016, and it’s easy to see why.

Additionally, almost 90% of the papers published in leading journals during that time frame were written in collaboration with academic or government researchers. I could not find a more recent statistic to share, but partnerships between universities and industry are certainly on the rise. For instance, many leading pharmaceutical companies, including Eli Lilly, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Bristol-Myers Squibb, have prioritized academic partnerships, highlighting the benefits enjoyed by all.

It’s clear that academic partnership offers benefits to advancing corporate research objectives. While larger and more established companies may have greater resources for academic partnering, smaller entities can benefit just as much from these relationships.

About the Author:

Ryan Confer is the chief financial officer of Genprex and has served in various strategic leadership positions of the company since its founding. With more than 15 years of entrepreneurial experience in planning, launching, developing, and growing emerging technology companies, Confer specializes in strategic, operating, and finance roles. As a serial entrepreneur, he has experience in structuring and negotiating deal terms for complex licensing and financing transactions.