People & patents: the key to investing in innovation (Guest blog)

All of today’s life-changing medicines began as a bright idea – perhaps in the minds of university scientists or entrepreneurs launching a start-up. Translating these ideas into improved patient outcomes is a tall order: it requires time, expertise, funding and patience. 
That’s where venture funds can help. UCB Ventures was launched in 2017 to support novel scientific insights and technologies that could transform the lives of people suffering from severe diseases. While these investments are usually high risk, working with cutting-edge start-ups connects UCB with some of the most disruptive innovations in biopharma.
‘The pace of innovation in life sciences has accelerated dramatically,’ explains Erica Whittaker, Head of UCB Ventures. ‘We are investing in disruptive technology such as cell therapy, gene therapy and gene editing, potentially helping to develop promising therapies and bring them to as many patients as possible in future.’
UCB is a Belgian-based company founded more than 90 years ago. It has an established reputation in neurology and immunology, delivering treatments to people with epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis amongst others. But their venture fund thinks big and takes a long-term view of what patients of the future will need.
‘We are investing in areas that, historically, are outside UCB’s comfort zone,’ says Whittaker. ‘In future, we could even support innovations in digital health or tools that tap into high-quality datasets, for example. It’s really about investing in something that addresses a major unmet need.’
So, what is it that UCB Ventures looks for when assessing new investment opportunities?
‘First, we look at the quality of the science and the team behind the idea,’ explains Whittaker. ‘We need to know that there is something special about their approach and that it’s protected by patents that give the company a strong competitive position in future.’
When it comes to spin-out companies, the most successful scientists have had the support of their university. ‘It has been very satisfying to see that start-ups and early stage companies have become very aware of the importance of patenting their technologies,’ says Whittaker. ‘Universities are now very sophisticated in their approach to patents, with many of them working with experienced patent attorneys. We like to invest early enough to help influence how and where companies seek patent protection.’
This expertise and experience can be vital. By getting a pharma venture fund on board early, start-ups gain access to a wide range of competences than young companies rarely have. Close collaboration with a venture fund brings them in touch with people who have worked on intellectual property protection, drug development, business development and market access – priceless assets for any innovation-driven company.
While UCB Ventures steers clear of micromanaging the companies they invest in, they offer board-level guidance on strategy and direction. ‘That’s why the individuals working at a start-up are so important to us when we are making investment decisions,’ Whittaker adds. ‘We don’t just invest and walk away – the decision to invest is just the beginning of a journey. We need to work together for a long time so it’s important that we see a passion to help patients that matches their scientific potential.’
People are also important when assembling an investment syndicate – a group of investors with a shared vision for how a novel technology could add value for tomorrow’s patients. Investment syndicates are created to spread the financial risk, but another key advantage of syndicates is that they bring a diverse range of skills to the table.
‘It’s nice to find like-minded investors to work with,’ Whittaker says. ‘We’ve invested in Europe and the US with the Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund, Takeda Ventures and ARCH Venture Partners, to name a few. This gives the early-stage company access to an even larger network of connections who might help them to overcome the inevitable challenges that arise when developing something truly novel.’

While the road to success can be long and winding, pharma venture funds and disruptive young companies are a potent combination. At the heart of every life sciences success story are people, patents – and a healthy dose of patience.

Erica Whittaker

Erica is Vice President & Head of UCB Ventures. She began her career at UCB in 2010 as VP Strategy & Partnering,...
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