Exciting Partnerships Forming Between Big Pharma and Tech


Lean, private firms being acquired by big pharma is not necessarily a new trend. But, with excitement in the health care technology space and established tech firms attempting to enter that market, partnerships are taking a new perspective to cut costs and increase quality.

Lean, private firms being acquired by big pharma is not necessarily a new trend. But, with excitement in the health care technology space and established tech firms attempting to enter that market, partnerships are taking a new perspective to cut costs and increase quality.

Pfizer and IBM1,2

IBM's Watson made the media rounds for defeating humans in board games like Chess and Go, but more relevant to the masses would be assistance it can provide in the health care arena. Health care was an original entry point for Watson, but an investigation3 and failed partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center4 has triggered doubt in the actual difference Watson can make in patient lives and provider workflow. In the realm of immuno-oncology, Pfizer wants to use Watson to keep up with the bevy of literature published to identify promising research and enable testing of new therapeutic candidates. After a successful pilot in which Watson recommended a combo treatment for cancer after processing early-stage non-cancer research, Pfizer’s research team came up with the same combo therapy independently. If the partnership works as expected, Pfizer will ideally be able to bring agents to the market quicker and without pricey failures. Watson is involved with other notable healthcare partnerships, ranging from data analytics to medical cloud-based privacy and storage.

Pfizer and SpringWorks Therapeutics5-7

With promises to shareholders and extreme scrutiny in the public eye, Pharma giants like Pfizer may have their hands tied when it comes to advancing a high-risk, high-reward therapeutic agent from the pipeline. To allow for more risk, they’ve selected four original therapeutic creations and a former VP to head a six-person startup called SpringWorks Therapeutics. Their only funding round, a Series A, pulled in $103 million from 5 different sources, including Pfizer. It will be interesting going forward to see how SpringWorks will work with other companies that they purchase original compounds from. Although Pfizer clearly has vested interest based on the investment, this arrangement differs from previous startup-like, pharma-backed spinoffs because Pfizer cannot be independently consulted as a sole safety net due to other financial stakeholders. The specific area of focus for SpringWorks was broadly described as “focused on diseases where there is an urgent need and the potential for the greatest impact for patients” by the founder and president of the start-up. The pipeline consists of three agents for rare diseases (desmoid tumors, neurofibromatosis type 1, hereditary xerocytosis) and one for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sanofi and Warp Drive8,9

Already more than five years old, this partnership makes a great case study for the challenges of outsourcing drug development innovation. Back in December 2016, Sanofi believed its partnership with Warp Drive Bio was close to the fruition of a marketable product based on recent delivery of a few dozen antibacterial compounds to be used for drug-resistant infections. This was after originally agreeing to terms in early 2012 with Sanofi committing $90 million over five years and expecting delivery of 3 to 5 potential new medications, along with the option to buy out the rest of Warp Drive. The 5-year mark has been surpassed, but terms were rearranged according to changing expectations and priorities. The original therapeutic goal was to target flat, intracellular proteins—immune to other drugs that aim to block proteins with more depth or with an extracellular mechanism. After testing many different bacterial strains discovered in natural settings, Warp Drive came up with a bundle of options that matched the detailed properties they were straining for within about 18 months of those original terms. With development stalling on those initial structures, moonshot objectives, like suppressing RAS genes (mutations of which cause up to 30% of all cancer), were balanced with more established antibiotic research and a pivot away from awaiting the any wunderkind molecules in nature. In addition, Warp Drive received approval to go public if desired in the future and collaborate with companies outside Sanofi. While the cost of sequencing genomes continues to plummet, this will only make it easier for Warp Drive and other companies to analyze and store genomic data until they can find a diamond in the rough.

Sanofi and Enteris BioPharma10-13

Enteris and Sanofi came to terms to work with a platform known as Peptelligence™ which focuses on small molecule deliveries that could be the right fit for a preclinical stage peptide in Sanofi’s Type 2 Diabetes portfolio. A diabetes project to note is that of oral insulin, which seems to be a tough target for pharma to develop, as Bristol-Myers Squibb and Novo Nordisk both pulled out of their oral insulin partnerships in 2016. Peptelligence™ uses an enterically coated tablet to sandwich two functional excipients and an active pharmaceutical product. The excipients serve to increase solubility and permeability of the medication they are paired with. Days after this partnership was announced in January 2017, Enteris was also recruited by KeyBioscience to help specifically with a metabolic peptide (even though this partnership technically stretches back to 2013). In another twist, Eli Lily came to a deal in June 2017 to work with KeyBioscience on a medication to increase insulin sensitivity and weight loss through the amylin-calcitonin receptor. These early stage deals are opaque in terms of details, but the Enteris technology seems to be generating high demand for peptide development.


  • Mukhergee S. How Pfizer and IBM Are Teaming Up to Develop Next-Gen Cancer Drugs. Fortune. December 1, 2016. http://fortune.com/2016/12/01/ibm-watson-pfizer-cancer-drugs/. Accessed October 24, 2017.
  • Japsen B. Pfizer Partners With IBM Watson To Advance Cancer Drug Discovery. Forbes. December 1, 2016. www.forbes.com/sites/brucejapsen/2016/12/01/pfizer-partners-with-ibm-watson-to-advance-cancer-drug-discovery/#3a277f3c1b1e. Accessed October 24, 2017.
  • Ross C, Swetlitz I. IBM pitched its Watson supercomputer as a revolution in cancer care. It’s nowhere close. Stat. September 5, 2017. https://www.statnews.com/2017/09/05/watson-ibm-cancer/ . Accessed September 10, 2017.
  • Harper M. MD Anderson Benches IBM Watson In Setback For Artificial Intelligence In Medicine. Forbes. February 19, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2017/02/19/md-anderson-benches-ibm-watson-in-setback-for-artificial-intelligence-in-medicine/#3043f1583774. Accessed January 24, 2018.
  • Garde D. A startup spun out of Pfizer just got $103 million to develop experimental drugs Big Pharma won't. Business Insider. September 25, 2017. www.businessinsider.com/pfizer-spins-out-springworks-therapeutics-with-103-million-in-funding-2017-9. Accessed November 7, 2017.
  • SpringWorks Therapeutics Overview. Crunchbase. www.crunchbase.com/organization/springworks-therapeutics. Accessed November 7, 2017.
  • Terry M. Pfizer Spins Off Four of Its Best Drug Candidates Into a Startup With $103 Million. PharmaLive. September 25, 2017. www.pharmalive.com/pfizer-spins-off-four-of-its-best-drug-candidates-into-a-startup-with-103-million/. Accessed November 7, 2017.
  • 8Rockoff J. Big Pharma, Short on Blockbusters, Outsources the Science. Wall Street Journal. December 6, 2016. https://www.wsj.com/articles/big-pharma-short-on-blockbusters-outsources-the-science-1481042583. Accessed November 18, 2017.
  • Fidler, B. Race to Mine Fungi for Drugs Revs up as Verdine’s LifeMine Gets $55M. Xconomy. September 18, 2017. http://www.xconomy.com/boston/2017/09/18/race-to-mine-fungi-for-drugs-begins-as-verdines-lifemine-snags-55m/#. Accessed November 18, 2017.
  • Adams B. Enteris BioPharma signs oral diabetes pact with Sanofi. FierceBiotech. January 23, 2017. www.fiercebiotech.com/biotech/enteris-biopharma-signs-oral-diabetes-pact-sanofi?utm_medium=nl&utm_source=internal&mrkid=42621249&mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiT1dZMk5EUTNNRGcyT1RnNSIsInQiOiJhNm1RTHVaRVQzMUduNk5HbURGYmhRYXY2bkxvbFZra3ZsZHR0SHpsVHNZbm5MRDJjMlNMbVNOU09pSzdMS1hXYkl0ZWRPQVBGOFRnbHpkZjBmTEZ6YXhkVEY1Skpob2RYUzlxRjJnajNSRlZyQzRLVUlTakpNU3ZzaDY5YnBmcyJ9. Accessed January 3, 2017.
  • Stanton D. Enteris BioPharma signs oral diabetes pact with Sanofi. In-Pharmatechnologist. January 25, 2017. https://www.in-pharmatechnologist.com/Article/2017/01/25/Sanofi-and-KeyBioscience-deals-validate-oral-delivery-tech-Enteris. Accessed January 3, 2018.
  • Taylor NP. KeyBioscience taps Enteris to create oral metabolic peptide. FierceBiotech. January 26, 2017. https://www.fiercebiotech.com/biotech/keybioscience-taps-enteris-to-create-oral-metabolic-peptide. Accessed January 3, 2018.
  • Carroll J. Hunting new deals, Eli Lilly buddies up on diabetes R&D with $55M pact. Endpoints News. June 8, 2017. https://endpts.com/hunting-new-deals-eli-lilly-buddies-up-on-diabetes-rd-with-55m-pact/. Accessed January 3, 2018.

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