Collaboration: FDI Supports Medical Research in Mission Bay

June 14, 2016

By any measure, the footprint of Bayer in the United States is significant. The company employs more than 12,000 people in almost 50 sites around the country. More than 2,000 work at its U.S. headquarters in Whippany, New Jersey. Sites in Pennsylvania and California make up more than 2,000 employees each, and other major research centers for pharmaceuticals, consumer health, animal health and crop science can be found in San Francisco, CA, Raleigh, NC and Shawnee, KS.

The U.S. Innovation Center in the Mission Bay neighborhood of San Francisco is the home of Bayer’s U.S. pharmaceuticals research team. Within this site is the U.S. Science Hub, directed by Chris Haskell, who’s been with Bayer since it acquired Schering AG in 2006. The U.S. Science Hub was established in 2011 to forge partnerships with academic institutions and life science companies in support of early drug discovery collaborations.

Having become a major presence around the country, Bayer is now implementing programs to expand its partnership footprint in the United States and worldwide. One of those is the CoLaborator in Mission Bay, an incubator that provides lab space for startups. It is an example of how major insourcing employers are facilitating significant research and development in the United States. Insourcing companies like Bayer are helping to lead America’s innovation advantage.

“We are heavily invested in nurturing the local life science ecosystem,” said Haskell. “We’re the fourth-largest biotech employer in the San Francisco Bay area and one of the few large pharmaceutical companies that have this footprint here.”

The CoLaborator is an incubator for small life science companies who want to be in the heart of the Mission Bay ecosystem. Bayer’s CoLaborator provides access to equipment for the life science startups to quickly begin putting their ideas to the test. This support includes on-site Environmental Health & Safety, and access to nearby University of California, San Francisco’s core services such as imaging, bioinformatics, and proteomics. Partnering with Bayer can also provide access to the global expertise and equipment of Bayer’s research network.

“We give them physical infrastructure with capital equipment and facilities support,” Haskell said. “That gives them the ability not to waste time before testing their ideas. That’s what I heard from a lot of serial entrepreneurs – how much time was wasted moving into a space and getting started.”

Historically, pharmaceutical companies have had solid vertical integration, so that everything – from the earliest discoveries, to product development, to taking those products to market – was handled within the organization. But that has gotten much more difficult as decades passed, for a very basic reason.

“The simplest approaches were done first,” Haskell pointed out. “The low-hanging fruit is gone. Today, we’re looking to have people in regions of innovation where we can identify and work with partners earlier,” Haskell said. “It’s a spectrum of finding ways to work with external innovators and help Bayer deliver its products to patients.”

Advances in technology and an increased understanding of the deeper complexities of diseases, such as cancer, also allow for a better understanding of how to develop therapies. With much of that developmental work happening at the startup level, Bayer is determined to foster it. They want not only to help in the discovery of new therapies, but also to propagate the best practices through organizations that share its life sciences focus.

“That allows us to put our energy into emerging technology and places where great life science work is being done,” said Haskell. “And we continue to experiment with ways to engage the external community.”

This is all part of Bayer’s transformation over the decades from a chemical company to a life sciences company purely focused on crop science, pharmaceuticals, and consumer and animal health.

It is estimated that one-third to one-half of a pharmaceutical company’s late portfolios – those products in clinical trials – come from partnerships of licensing. And these days, Haskell added, more and more of the early product pipeline is coming from partnered portfolios, as well.

“We’ve had a series of leaders who have been very appreciative and supportive of looking outside our four walls to find the best solutions, no matter where they fit, then developing structures within our organization to help,” Haskell said.

The emerging fields of digital health and gene therapy are prime examples. They are areas where Bayer is working on the leading edge of available technologies and treatments while identifying and partnering with companies – like gene therapy pioneer CRISPR Therapeutics of Cambridge, MA – that have the expertise to probe the frontiers of this fast-changing sector.

“We’ve done significant deals in the United States with external parties that have specific goals for impacting our early pipeline,” he said. “This is definitely a way that we’re looking to engage over multiple years, making an investment with these research groups and trying to transform their ideas into therapies.”

The pace at which Bayer is changing as an organization is increasing, and that kind of responsiveness is crucial for a life sciences company today.

“It’s definitely continuing to evolve,” Haskell said. “I can guarantee you it’s not going to look the same in 10 years.”

What’s more, the company is doing so while maintaining its core skill sets and values. He appreciates the fact that he works for a company that can mesh such flexibility and long-range vision with its long-held standards.

“I’ve seen, especially over the last five years, cultural revolutions in our organization – acceptance and willingness and enthusiasm to engage with these external partners," Haskell said. "It makes you proud to work with a company that has taken the steps to evolve, the steps that are necessary to make it competitive and contiune to develop and deliver therapies."