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Right Brains Wanted: Sanofi-Aventis Wants to Tap the Creative Genius of Boston-Area Biotechs

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Lexington, MA-based Raindance Technologies, a provider of microfluidics tools for genomic research, and Merrimack. Yet other Big Pharma companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis have been more active than Sanofi recently in partnering with local biotech companies. (Viehbacher is no stranger to London-based Glaxo’s commercial strategy, having headed that company’s U.S. pharmaceutical organization before becoming chief executive of Sanofi in late-2008.)

Our intention is to be a “first-choice collaborator and partner,” said Jason Slusher, site head of Sanofi’s Cambridge Research Center. “We know that’s not always the case, but we want to get there.”

Still, some could argue that biotech companies need resources from Big Pharma just as much as—or more than—Big Pharma needs them. The outlook for biotechs that wish to raise money through initial public offerings remains bleak, and sometimes a partnership with a pharma company can supply younger firms with money to advance their drugs and, just as crucially, expertise in late-stage drug development and commercialization. Sanofi, with 2008 profits of about $6 billion on $40.6 billion in sales, has plenty of cash to invest in companies that can help it advance its own strategic goals.

What types of technologies is Sanofi seeking to access from biotechs? Well, it’s probably easier to say what the company isn’t interested in: “Me-too” products that don’t differentiate themselves from existing treatments. Marc Cluzel, head of R&D for Sanofi, said during his presentation at the event that the company has sought partnerships with biotech firms with expertise in biologics, of which the firm has less internal expertise than it does with chemical-based drugs. Sanofi, for example, has gained an interest in several antibody drug programs through its broad partnership with Tarrytown, NY-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:REGN), Cluzel said.

Indeed, Sanofi’s event generated significant interest from the local biotech community. Just in my own travels there I chatted with or spotted (to name only several people and in no particular order): Nagesh Mahanthappa, vice president of business development and operations at Waltham, MA-based Avila Therapeutics (he told me he was there to learn more about Sanofi’s interest in oncology partnerships); Robert Mashal, CEO of Newton, MA-based NKT Therapeutics; Ben Zeskind, CEO of Cambridge-based Immuneering; Amir Nashat, general partner of Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham; Abi Barrow, founding director of the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center (and an Xconomist); and David Steinberg, partner at PureTech Ventures and CEO of Enlight Biosciences.

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