Partnerships at Bayer’s Innovation Center

By Kaitlin Milliken |  June 14, 2019

In 1999, the University of California San Francisco broke ground on an over 800,000-square-foot medical center near the rocky shores of the bay. Twenty years later, the city’s Mission Bay neighborhood houses a mix of startups, research facilities, and large companies seeking to advance the medical field. In fact, over 70 biotechnology companies and research centers populate the area, according to the San Francisco Weekly.

In 2011, Bayer AG, the German pharmaceutical giant, recognized the potential of Mission Bay’s ecosystem. The company relocated it’s Bay Area innovation efforts to the life science hub and opened the West Coast Innovation Center.

“[T]he mission of our research group here is to develop new therapies for [Bayer], but…in a way that involves working with the external community,” says Dr. Christopher Haskell, Vice President and Head of Bayer’s West Coast Innovation Center. “The focus was on…the excellent academic medical centers of the region, anchored by the University of California, San Francisco.”

Haskell said that over time his team recognized potential in the pool of startups around the center and searched for a way to engage this group. “[W]hen we first moved to Mission Bay, it quickly became apparent that the pace of startup creation was really accelerating,” he says. “But there was wasn’t a place for them to actually do their work. So they were stuck…having to move far away.”

Haskell says his team also saw that two nearby life science incubators were “bursting at the seams” with startups. Bayer opened its own incubator, the CoLaborator, in 2012. Now the 30,000-square-foot space provides select startups with shared lab space, the ability to network with Bayer researchers, and educational programming.  The CoLaborator also offers space for more mature companies to scale their technologies, according to the initiative’s website.

During a conversation with InnoLead, Haskell discussed best practices for forging meaningful relationships with academics, startups, and other life science companies.

Academic Partnerships

According to Haskell, academic partnerships can take two forms at the West Coast Innovation Center.

The first type he refers to as larger, strategic alliances. Haskell describes these partnerships as a “multi-year, multi-project pipeline.” The goal, he says, is to have a compound that is ready for human clinical trail through the Food and Drug Administration’s Investigational New Drug program. This process, Haskell says, could take up to 12 years.

Haskell points to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the Walmart Institute of Johns Hopkins, and Vanderbilt University as examples of strategic alliances.

In the second type of academic partnership, the team at the West Coast Innovation Center works with individual academics and scientists. According to Haskell, the center created an agreement with UCSF to smooth the collaboration process.

“We created a master document that essentially answered some of the sticky issues around the IP and publishing. … [We can] get a collaboration going in a matter of months, if not faster,” Haskell says.

Partnering with Startups

In addition to partnerships with academics, the West Coast Innovation Center’s CoLaborator allows Bayer to engage the startup ecosystem.

When developing the CoLaborator, Haskell says he talked to serial entrepreneurs in the Bay Area to find out what mattered most to founders when they started their companies.

“Their main point was, they needed a place where they could drop in and quickly get started,” Haskell said. “Pharmaceutical research can be very capital intensive. And there’s a lot of equipment that needs to be purchased. [We provide] a space for them where they didn’t have to worry about that.”

According to Haskell, entrepreneurs in the program also say their ability to work closely with other scientists and entrepreneurs can help accelerate their technologies.

Bayer partners with startups whose technology or drug concept aligns with the innovation program’s focuses. These issue areas include cardiovascular disease, cancer research, women’s healthcare, and blood-related diseases. Inhabitants at the CoLaborator pay rent to use the space.

Bayer also chooses not to take equity from the startups that reside in the CoLaborator. Instead, the team uses the initiative as a way to build relationships that could create joint value for Bayer down the road. Haskell says that a high percentage of companies in the program later run partnerships with Bayer.

But Haskell sites the ability to support these innovative startups as the most important aspect of the CoLaborator.

“[This partnership is also] a big factor in helping these companies advance along their mission,” Haskell says. “And so they see a partnership with pharma as important in not only giving them input on a what an industrial customer would look like, but also as a…way to validate their technology.”

Working with Other Corporates 

Bayer’s West Coast Innovation center also incorporates partnerships with other companies in the pharmaceutical space. Haskell says that these corporate partnerships often take the form of co-development.

“We have partnerships with Johnson & Johnson…and Merck, on some of our largest programs that we have actually on the market,” Haskell says. “What’s really interesting about the ecosystem…is it’s very open cooperation to help advance the entire ecosystem, and especially the startups and the academics.”

Competitors may mentor the same startup or work together to develop best practices in an area. However, Haskell mentions that intra-industry conversations tend to follow Chatham House rules, where information can be shared but not attributed to a certain person. He says that these guidelines allow competitors in a commercial space to collaborate more smoothly.

Combatting ‘Not Invented Here’ Syndrome

Even eight years after its founding, Haskell says that the West Coast Innovation Center still encounters the “not invented here” syndrome.

He points to an example of the early days at the CoLaborator. One company in the program worked on improving the circulating half-life of therapeutic agents.

“[T]he first feedback we got from our internal groups was that ‘Yes, we could do that, too.’ And it’s probably true we could do that too,” Haskell says. “But [when] you have more brains coming from different angles, often you come up with new solutions.”

However, Haskell says that having champions within the organization can help overcome that challenge. He recalled that a champion within Bayer helped the rest of the company recognize the value in developing the solution with a startup.

“[T]here’s always a strong, natural instinct to work with your internal ideas…and concepts first,” he says. “[V]ery often [support for partnerships] comes down to a personal connection, and having a champion…”