Apr 27, 2020
Paul Kolhaas

Reinventing Pharma Amidst Covid-19: From Siloes to Ecosystems

We are currently facing one of the largest healthcare crises in modern history — and it’s far from over. The hunt for cures and vaccines for COVID-19 is forcing scientists, governments and the public at large to rethink our current biopharma innovation models. They’re too slow, too expensive and risky. But there’s hope, because the current focus on vaccine and drug development is unparalleled in history and with it, scientists across the globe are quickly developing new collaborative ways of working together. I believe this crisis will catalyze a paradigm shift for new business models in pharma and biotech. Open markets in which drugs can be approved on much shorter time frames and smaller budgets, bringing treatments to patients at a fraction of the current cost. This shift is unavoidable. And it will be facilitated by new digital platforms that drive open science. We will break away from the traditional paradigm in drug discovery — to frictionless data sharing without the commercial constraints of intellectual property.

Platforms

Platforms are eating the world. Uniting consumers and producers around shared incentives they create value using resources they don’t own or control. They serve communities, and instead of operating on constrained supply economies of a single firm, they unleash network effects between all participants.

While other parts of our economy — retail, travel, hotels, apartments, taxis, banking — have shifted to open data and digital marketplace models over the past decades, biotech and pharma continue to operate on closed pipeline models. This monopolises innovation, slows progress and often results in higher drug prices for patients. In software, the advent of open source development and collaboration models enabled by platforms such as Linux and Github have completely changed how we consume software today. At Molecule, we believe the time is ripe for new digital operating systems and marketplaces to radically accelerate how we bring drugs to patients. Ship faster, cheaper and more diverse treatments, driven by network effects.

Much of the sluggishness around innovation is tied to governance issues and lack of coordination in biopharmaceutical innovation systems. Take the current pandemic as an example. Over the past two months, we’ve seen an unprecedented explosion of coronavirus R&D with currently over 60 new COVID19 treatments, vaccines and therapeutics in development- a phenomenal achievement. Yet, these efforts remain scattered and siloed among a multitude of big corporations, academic institutions, governments and smaller biotechs. Does it make sense to have all these stakeholders work on the same thing? The industry today is incredibly fragmented. Platform technologies can help create new efficiencies here via coordination, by distributing incentives, value and leveraging smaller stakeholders at different parts of the value chain.

A great example of this is Covid Moonshot a non-profit project by an AI-startup called PostEra. The startup combined their AI algorithm with the collective wisdom of the worlds chemist. They asked a global community of medicinal chemists to design new Covid-19 drug candidates based on early academic work in the UK.

“As of 7 April 400 contributors had submitted more than 3500 suggestions. As the submissions came in, the company used its algorithms to work out which of these compounds would be easiest to make, most likely to work, and least likely to be toxic. This produced an initial list of 250 compounds, along with recipes for their synthesis. PostEra has sent this information to contract manufacturer Enamine in Kiev, Ukraine, to create them. On 8 April, the first 100 arrived at the University of Oxford, UK, where researchers will test how well they bind to the protease in the lab.”
Covid Moonshot by PostEra: A few of the over 3,500 submissions for potential novel Covid19 drug candidates.

Sharing Economies in Pharma: Intellectual property, data & funding

So, Covid-19 is creating enormous pressure to rethink current practices. Over the past months, we saw existing drugs being fast-tracked and research teams from across the globe joining forces to create novel vaccines at breakneck speed. If the right platforms and collaboration tools existed, this approach could be scaled far beyond the current crisis and fundamentally reshape how we discover and develop medicines.

So how are new therapeutics made? From a high-level, it's fairly simple. Pharma consists of 3 core elements:

  • 👩‍🔬 New discoveries & IP
  • 📈 Data
  • 💸 Funding

Imagine a global marketplace that was designed to facilitate these types of interactions: a newly discovered molecule is uploaded that shows promise, scientists from across the globe can analyse the data, investors begin funding the promising compound to finance further studies and produce more data. Our team has been working on blockchain-based infrastructure to channel funding mechanisms for over a year. We believe decentralized finance will play a huge role in unleashing the true potential of distributed drug development, but it’s early, and we need to focus on basic marketplace dynamics first.

How can a platform approach help with the current pandemic and hunt for a cure? While companies and research institutes announce new ways to tackle Covid-19 by the day, it’s hard to keep track of the new press releases, funding sources and how organisations and individuals can best collaborate. We want to enable people to share their innovations, funding avenues and data more easily to facilitate these new forms of collaboration.

Our early platform empowers scientists to share their innovations more easily, display data about them in structured ways and make them discoverable in a beautiful interface and repository.

Why would they do this? To connect with collaborators and funders. While most larger pharma and biotech companies already have ample funding avenues and large R&D teams, especially universities outside of the major innovation hubs (MIT, Stanford, Oxford), which in most cases do not have access to these resources. Our listing helps scientists with 3 things:

  1. Provides visibility, searchability and more open access to data without the constraints imposed by commercial and intellectual property.
  2. Easily share their needs, progress and find development and industry partners.
  3. Enables promising approaches to be quickly identified by funders and accelerated.

At the same time, we’ve seen governments, NGOs, venture capitalists and private companies announce funding for Covid-19 treatments at an astonishing rate. More capital is being deployed into vaccine development than ever before. With our system, we want to list these promising funding initiatives to:

  1. Make them discoverable by the scientists most in need.
  2. Enable easy access and overview of various funders and their goals.

The final puzzle piece rests with laboratories and contract research organizations (CROs) that have the capacity to perform the tests and trials needed and produce the data that ensures that therapeutics are safe and efficacious. For these data producers, our platform allows:

  1. Scientists to quickly identify suitable partners.
  2. CROs to find projects they can help with.

For example, we recently partnered with Arctoris — a cloud robotics laboratory where drug discovery data production is automated — to explore these types of use cases. Enabling early-stage researchers to automate pre-clinical experiments around their research and make them discoverable levels the playing field and allows the most promising discoveries to succeed.

With these 3 core stakeholders in place, we are creating a global platform and “virtual accelerator” that enables faster and more efficient interactions, transparency and prioritization of the best approaches. While we initially intend to curate projects ourselves, we the platform will be open access and we hope to inspire a community of scientists, funders and CROs to list themselves.

What’s Next? Soft Launch.

We are currently finalizing the first set of research projects that will go live on our platform. Our first big goal is to help accelerate scientists and early-stage projects out of academia and small biotechs, that are still flying under the radar today. If we want to rapidly find new cures, we need to leave our traditional paradigms and approach this bottom-up. Simultaneously, we are reaching out to funders and CROs to participate in this new ecosystem.

👩🔬 Do you have a research project or know someone working on one? We’d love to talk to them!

💸 Interested in funding an early-stage COVID-19 therapeutic, or know someone who is? Please send them our way.