As I ran a half marathon this weekend, I was drawn to parallels between running a private cancer drug development company and running a road race. Thinking through the analogy, I came away with a couple of thoughts to share.
Whether you read the mainstream news or industry related publications, the message is the same: the pharmaceutical industry is facing massive challenges that include the patent cliff and diminishing return on investment (approved drugs relative to dollars invested in research and development). The industry and Wall Street don’t seem to be aligned on the how to address some of these issues, including the pros and cons of cutting R&D spending. The acceleration in layoffs in the pharma industry continues to take a toll on productivity, even of the survivors. All of these issues are overlaid on the process of getting a drug from discovery to the marketplace, where the chance of navigating that path successfully is about 1 in 10.
While biotech has been recognized as a key contributor, involved in bringing to market 34% of new drugs over the last ten years, pressure has been building on biotechnology companies from both ends of the financing continuum. With fewer risk capital dollars coming into the sector, biotech is experimenting with business models, particularly to a focus on tangible (e.g. saleable) assets, such as a lead drug. With a cold shoulder from the public markets, biotech is relying on pharmaceutical companies for their exit strategy. In turn, pharma is shifting to risk sharing models, which entail licensing deals with smaller upfront payments vs. outright acquisition. Overall, the last few years have dramatically changed the environment for building value for biotech companies involved in drug development.
What about running made me think of the drug development ecosystem?
Avoid getting caught up in a crowd: For me, peace is one of the wonderful features of running so I rarely run road races. On Saturday, I was surrounded at the starting line by hundreds of people that would run the same route with the same overall goal, to finish. While some trained for time, others were there for fun, as evidenced by some of the very creative but at times unwieldy costumes!
My first road races came as a teenager, running with my father. I remember him coaching me through the first few events. He told me that there would be faster runners and slower runners and that the most important thing to remember was to run my own race. Even when you can tell the pace is wrong (too slow, too fast), being surrounded by a group of people all headed in the same direction makes it easy to lose track of your plan.
This Saturday, my pace for the first nine miles felt very comfortable and consistent. Then I started noticing that the crowd around me was changing. I was passing folks that had gone out too fast and being passed by runners that had held back. Even though I was aware of the challenge, I found myself checking my watch frequently, reminding myself to stay steady and run my own race.
Adapt to change: Of course, there are factors that should result in a change in plans. While the weather wasn’t a factor in Madison this weekend, the only other half marathon I have run was five years ago. My training was more structured because I was working towards a specific finishing time. The race was in May when the average high temperatures are in the 60s. Unfortunately, the temps that day started in the 70s and climbed quickly into the 90s. I wasn’t prepared for the heat and had to decide whether I would push for my time (and potentially fade out) or pull back and guarantee a finish. While altering your plans midstream may cause angst, evaluating possible outcomes with and without the changes can help you see the right path. I was disappointed to miss my time but my decision to pull back felt validated as I passed runners on the side of the road being attended to by medical personnel.
At Quintessence, we started developing our technology prior to the changes in the market and have succeeded in getting a lead candidate into a Phase I clinical trial. My goal over the last few years has been to advance our innovative cancer drug to the point where sufficient risk was reduced for a pharmaceutical partner to value the drug enough to 1) support development moving forward and 2) provide our shareholders a return on their investment. As the good, bad and ugly news in the biotech sector continues to ebb and flow, the parallel I find in my running and my work is to continue to run my own race, being aware of my self and my environment but not distracted by others.