Venture investors are helping to build the pipelines of the future by finding and supporting tomorrow’s innovation today.
By Scott Brun, M.D.
Venture capital and the investors who fund new ideas may evoke a specific image for you. If you’re old enough to remember the emergence of the dot-coms and the eventual burst of the dot-com bubble, you might recall that these companies began with venture funding, the seed money that helped them launch their businesses. Or maybe you’ve seen Shark Tank, the popular TV show that has a panel of venture capitalists (the “sharks”) evaluating the ideas and business plans of would-be entrepreneurs, then competing for the opportunity to invest in what they see as the most promising of the ideas.
With a keen focus on good science, AbbVie Ventures – the group I lead at AbbVie – is charged with finding and nurturing the innovation of tomorrow – innovation that may support or complement our existing programs and expertise. While we make investments into early stage biotechnology companies, the primary intent of our efforts is not for financial return, but rather to gain access to potentially transformational innovation that can lead to a meaningful impact for patients.
AbbVie’s goal – to have a remarkable impact in the lives of patients – is clear. Determining where to make our investments to have this kind of impact, however, is complex and challenging. Our researchers are employing cutting-edge science and innovation into their work every day, but we recognize that great science and new ideas don’t just happen inside of our walls. Neither do they happen overnight.
As both a physician and a scientist, my experience in R&D helps me assess the potential of these novel scientific insights. I’m particularly excited about the level of impressive science that our team is seeing across these innovative startup companies. In just the last year, AbbVie Ventures became the first investors in companies based on cutting-edge technologies coming out of two universities. In addition to our financial investment, we are now helping those scientific pioneers develop their companies and strategic focus through our participation on their boards of directors.
“What’s important is keeping an eye to the future, placing early bets on the best science and remaining engaged with the top scientists and innovators outside of our own laboratories.”
One of these companies, Ribometrix, was spun out of the University of North Carolina, and is focused on using small-molecule drugs to target RNAs (ribonucleic acid) inside of cells. Drugs typically target proteins that are known to play a role in disease, and RNAs are the blueprints for those proteins. RNAs have three-dimensional structure to them, and Ribometrix is trying to make small molecules that will bind to the RNAs to block them from ever producing the proteins linked to disease. This could have significant implications for drug discovery and ultimately lead to therapies directed against new targets that have been traditionally challenging to address.
Another company created out of science from the University of Pennsylvania, Carma, is advancing research to see if macrophages, a type of white blood cell that acts as a first line of defense against foreign invaders such as infections and tumor cells, can be programmed with the specificity to attack solid malignancies, similar to how chimeric antigen receptor engineered T cells (CAR-T) work in blood cancers. This is another idea that, if successful, could lead to the development of new options to treat cancer.
Ideas and new technologies can be found in a range of settings across the globe. In research, it’s tough to predict outcomes because science rarely goes exactly as planned. This is particularly true when we’re talking about these early concepts and technologies. Some of these ideas will be successful. Others may not yield the desired result, but insights gained from the exploration might be successfully applied to future efforts. What’s important is keeping an eye to the future, placing early bets on the best science and remaining engaged with the top scientists and innovators outside of our own laboratories.
A recent example of this approach is seen with Alector, a startup company that originated as a venture investment by AbbVie but evolved to become a partnership deal directed towards two novel targets in neuroinflammation that hold the potential to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease. The relationships AbbVie built with Alector’s leadership via board participation provided a strong foundation to drive this business development opportunity.
In the last 10 to 20 years, pharmaceutical and biotech companies have delivered new medicines to patients for a range of disorders, including many cancers, rheumatologic and inflammatory bowel diseases, hepatitis C infection, HIV and many others. Current pipelines are poised to deliver many more promising therapies in the near term. To build the pipelines of the future, venture groups like the one here at AbbVie will work alongside our internal researchers to identify and nurture strong science now to ensure that we maintain a range of options to help patients well into the future.