Collaboration Is Key to Innovation in Biotechnology

Donald Johnston

October 14, 2016

4 Min Read

A new report from Thomson Reuters shows that innovation in biotechnology declined slightly in 2015, and biotech is the only one of a dozen worldwide industries examined to show that kind of decline (1). To measure innovation, compilers used metrics such as patents filed and scientific literature cited. Looking at the details, however, the dip was just a 2% drop from 42,584 events in 2014 to 41,624 in 2015. The same dynamics had revealed a 7% increase in innovation from 2013 to 2014.

Indeed, the report notes that the sector experienced a number of “firsts” in 2015. It cites as examples both CRISPRs (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, segments of prokaryotic DNA) and editing of a human-embryo germline. “CRISPR ‘interference’ involved making targeted modifications to segments of DNA to alter its immunity,” the report states. “Such work has implications not only for humans, but also for food crops and other plants and animals.”

Other noteworthy innovations highlighted in the report include US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approvals of the first biospecific antibody (Amgen’s Blincyto product); the first biosimilar in the United States (Novartis’s Zarxio product); and the first biotech food animal (Aquabounty Technologies’ salmon).

“There’s no disputing that the advent of biotechnology has created an experimental sandbox for everything from genetically manipulating DNA to modifying the compositions of plants and printing drugs using bioorganisms,” the report says. “[Whereas] this is cutting-edge work, the pace of innovation fell slightly short of where it was a year earlier.”

Venture Capital Funding
Thomson Reuters’s BioWorld news service also has examined venture capital funding in the first quarter of 2016 (2). Its report details a steep decline in private US biopharmaceutical investments: US$1.6 billion for 2016 compared with $1.9 billion in 2015. But a closer look at the data is more reassuring: The $1.6 billion raised in 2016 is still nearly double the $815 million that venture capitalists had invested in private US biotech companies two years ago. Further, Moderna Therapeutics closed a monster $450 million series C round in the first quarter of 2015. Leaving that out, 2016’s first-quarter results eclipsed the same period a year ago. As BioWorld put it, VC funding is down year-on-year, “but don’t freak out.”

Working Together
Similarly, the modest decline in biopharma innovation described by the Thomson Reuters report is worth noting but not cause for alarm. The state-of-innovation report is in its seventh year. It uses the term collabovation to describe the link between collaboration and innovation. The study authors saw a high rate of participation by universities and research institutions in the biopharmaceutical industry as a clear indication of the biotechnology sector’s “collabovative” health: “Three of the top 10 global biotech innovators are universities and seven of the top 10 are either a university or research center. No other sector has this mix in its top 10.”

Companies and institutions introducing the highest number of biopharmaceutical inventions according to Thomson Reuters were DuPont (407), the University of Jiangnan in China (287), Monsanto (229), Roche (203), and the University of Zhejiang in China (200). Rounding out the top 10 were the Rural Development Administration of South Korea, the University of California, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France, Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute in China, and the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale in France.

The report was released just as the biopharmaceutical world was gearing up for the BIO International Convention (June 2016 in San Francisco). At last year’s annual convention, the leading biotechnology trade group in the world announced that it was changing its name from the Biotechnology Industry Organization to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. In addition to a bustling exhibit floor and seminars, scientific sessions, business workshops, and other educational and networking opportunities this year, organizers would schedule a record-breaking 35,700 partnering sessions in the BIO Business Forum, a sure indication that collaboration and innovation — collabovation — in biotechnology is alive and well.

“It appears that biotech has leveled off somewhat,” the report’s biotechnology chapter concluded, “but it remains to be seen whether this sector will pull ahead again in the future. The technologies are still in early stages, and the players are still coming into their own. One thing is certain: The industry is one to watch as the output of its activity is sure to have an immense impact on all life — human, plant, animal, aquatic, and more.”

1 Disruptive, Game-Changing Innovation: 2016 State of Innovation. Thomson Reuters, 2016:

2 Winter P, Orelli B. Money Flows More Slowly into Biopharma: Should We Be Concerned? Thomson Reuters, 2016:

Donald Johnston is a senior director in the intellectual property and science unit of Thomson Reuters, 1-770-810-3118; [email protected].

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