Partnering Insight recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Chandra Ramanathan, Head of the East Coast Innovation Center at Bayer, whose mission is building an innovative product portfolio with key partners including academia and members of the local innovation ecosystem of biotech startups. Bayer is well known for their ability to tap into the innovation mindset. Dr. Ramanathan will be participating on the panel “What’s the next big thing on pharma’s wish list?” at BioPharm America™ taking place in Boston, MA, September 26–27. We spoke to Dr. Ramanathan to hear more about his work at the Center and to hear his strategy for tapping into innovation.
The East Coast Innovation Center at Bayer is part of broader US innovation strategy that includes the Bayer West Coast Innovation Center in San Francisco. The launch of the East Coast Innovation Center occurred in March 2016.
“Our innovation strategy for identifying and working with the most innovative startups to forge partnerships with Bayer is based on four core pillars,” said Ramanathan, described as:
- Partnership with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard that is focused on oncology and cardiovascular diseases. Partnership with Johns Hopkins University Wilmer Eye Institute that is focused on ophthalmology;
- Developing the US scientific footprint for advancing new treatments and delivering products that can benefit patients;
- Immersion in the Boston innovation ecosystem through partnerships such as Dimension Therapeutics focused on establishing gene therapies for hemophilia A.
- Build on the Pharma foundation and explore opportunities for Bayer Life Sciences.
“It is exciting to be part of Boston’s innovation ecosystem,” said Ramanathan. “Our strategy includes engaging with MassBio to mentor startups, and to learn about what partner companies are offering to determine if it is in line with what Bayer is looking for.”
Ramanathan started his career in drug discovery, and moved along the value spectrum of discovery, development and commercialization. He came into his role at Bayer when he created a strategy that laid the foundation for the Center.
“Three years back, I headed up external innovation as part of innovation strategy at corporate level; that job is not to look at current models, but rather to look at what the future holds and how to effectively engage with current and emerging partners,” said Ramanathan. “Perhaps even more important than looking for new partnerships is the role that Bayer has in the innovation ecosystem. I presume management gave me the job as Head of the Center based on that effort.”
When sifting for key identifiers, what does Ramanathan look for, i.e., what are those magic ingredients that make him stop and say, “This looks promising”?
“I think the first ingredient is, it’s a mindset,” said Ramanathan.
“Bayer as a single organization can no longer do things on its own, so we have to do it with partners,” said Ramanathan. “For me, it is critical that we have excellent clarity on our corporate strategy and what we’re looking for in terms of our focus on individual therapeutic areas, like oncology. Once we have this clarity, it becomes easy to make a match with a partner,” he said.
“Knowing what you want is highly effective because the partner goes into the collaboration knowing exactly what Bayer is looking for, and what value all parties will get from a partnership with Bayer,” said Ramanathan.
From there, once an innovative idea appears to fit with Bayer’s portfolio, the next steps are designed to formalize the partnership while considering what type of collaboration will bring the best value.
“The first step is attained by being in the ecosystem and seeing the opportunity,” said Ramanathan. “Once the opportunity lines up with Bayer’s strategic priorities, we review it with key stakeholders in the company to see if it fits. Once this strategic alignment is clear, we look into collaboration.”
Bayer’s partnership with the Broad Institute in oncology is an example of this, where every decision is made jointly, resulting in bringing forward the best value of Bayer and of Broad.
In other partnerships, the collaboration is a straight licensing agreement. “We bring the asset to Bayer and develop it internally,” said Ramanathan. “Or as with CRISPR Therapeutics, we formed a JV company with focus on certain disease areas.”
Pursuing strategic advantage
When looking for innovation, the benchmarks for early stage companies have changed. “What we define as ‘early’ has totally changed,” said Ramanathan. “In oncology, five years ago you would look for proof of concept (POC). Now, for POC you can look at early as filing with the FDA; therefore, you have to go much earlier with a preclinical signal or exciting science. And in certain technologies, like IO with all the checkpoint inhibitors, if a company has not gotten into the field by this time, they are blocked from getting into this space or too expensive. Determining early strategic advantage plays a major role in how we choose our partners. You have to look at it,” said Ramanathan.
“From Mission Bay on the west coast and Boston on the east coast, we interact with university researchers and find out what they are working on,” Ramanathan added. “If we find that their science is aligned with our strategic priorities, we develop an academic collaboration. We review a lot of academic publications, but that can be little bit too late.
“As part of this, we go to the various academic institutions. For example, Boston Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital both have academic seminar series where you can find out what is going on,” said Ramanathan. “There is not one single formula but a combination of different activities that lead to discovery.”
Ramanathan and Aaron Schwartz, Director, R&D Innovation Sourcing at Novo Nordisk Inc., will speak on the topic of what pharma companies, including Bayer, are looking for at BioPharm America in September.
“I am definitely looking forward to the panel at BioPharm America,” said Ramanathan. “I believe early life science integration is an opportunity for pharma going forward.”
Focus on the future
In addition, Ramanathan listed several major burdens we will face in the future that invite opportunities for innovation.
“Our planet cannot support around 10 billion population by 2050. It will present grave deficiencies in food production and agriculture. This is not a topic for BioPharm America, but it is important to think about the future in terms of technologies to support crop sustainability,” said Ramanathan.
“The growing and aging population will play a role, as well,” said Ramanathan. “In modern times, we have pushed back this transition from wellness to illness to the later part of our lives. For Bayer, a hot topic is Bayer’s position in consumer health related to this transition from a state of wellness to illness.
“Along these lines, another hot topic will be what technologies we can introduce and integrate into human healthcare to mitigate future illness burdens,” said Ramanathan.
Ultimately, the message to biotech startup companies is to focus on the “why” in what they are doing, in terms of the future benefit to patients.
“Over the last year that I have been in Boston, I have been deeply engaged with the biotech startup community,” said Ramanathan. “My advice to biotech startups is to keep their end goal of addressing unmet medical need for patients in mind. If that is the end goal, they need to come up with an efficient strategy to do that. I would also advise startups to talk with pharma partners regarding translation. If you are working with something unique for patients, that will drive you, and you will make all the right decisions.”
At the end of the day, this interaction with people on verge of discovery is at the core of what drives his work.
“Last evening, I was in a networking event with a Nobel Laureate; today I was talking with the heads of two top research institutes in the world,” said Ramanathan. “The best part of my job is being part of this exciting science culture.
“I started my career in genomics 20 years back,” said Ramanathan. “Since then, the technology has matured, and creating value for patients is the renewed priority. Being part of the biotech startup ecosystem, and the potential transformation we can provide for patients and human health, that excites me.”
The Bayer licensing and business development team will on site at BioPharm America, and Ramanathan advises companies that are interested to reach out and request to meet with him through partneringONE®. “If I am not the right person, I will forward their inquiry to the right people at Bayer,” said Ramanathan.