With the acquisition of Genzyme in 2001, Sanofi is located in the heart of Boston, the world capital of life sciences. The group’s R & D is nourished by this bubbling ecosystem, through a network of partnerships and investments. Guided tour.
500, Kendall Square. The address of Sanofi in Massachusetts is worth gold. In the pharmaceutical industry, “Kendall Square” has become synonymous with “life sciences”, just as “Wall Street” refers to finance. This Cambridge square, near the prestigious Harvard Universities and MIT, has given its name to a neighborhood that has become the Mecca of world biology. On a square kilometer perimeter, all the big names in pharmacy, 250 “biotechs” and the most powerful investment funds in the sector are concentrated. In what was only a decade ago an industrial zone, mixing decayed food plants and vacant lots, the buildings grew like mushrooms.
In the heart of this ecosystem, set in a futuristic glass tower, Sanofi feeds on the incredible scientific bubbling of the city. To the point that the connections established with the medical, scientific and financial community of Boston constitute today the principal food of the R & D of the French group.
Genzyme, the acquisition that changes everything
The presence of the French group in the United States is old, with a factory in New Jersey brought in legacy by Aventis. But its anchorage in Cambridge goes back to 2011: by buying the Genzyme laboratory, the largest employer in Massachusetts with 5,000 employees, for $ 20 billion, Sanofi has not only provided itself with an essential growth engine but also a prominent place in Cambridge. The French laboratory indirectly benefits from the aura that Genzyme – a pioneer in the treatment of rare diseases – enjoys among the scientific community.
An acquisition that also accelerated the transformation of innovation at Sanofi. On arrival in 2011, Elias Zerhouni, the head of research, has completely restructured the R & D of the French laboratory and converted it to the “open innovation” model – adopted today by most major laboratories. A mutation dictated by the urgency of filling desperately empty pipes, at a time when Sanofi was suffering from the loss of several key patents. By the idea, above all, that the collective intelligence is infinitely more powerful than that of an industrial actor, even if it is a world leader. Gone are the days when researchers jealously guard their secrets, place to alliances and sharing ideas.
First decline of this “open innovation”, Sanofi relies on partners, who have become big suppliers of new products. In 2015, two thirds of Sanofi’s new medicines came from outside – a proportion that the group now wants to rebalance in favor of “home” research.
This co-development model allows Sanofi to embark on highly innovative or risky fields where the laboratory has no expertise. Launched this week, Dupixent, the first treatment for atopic dermatitis (a serious skin disease), was born of a collaboration – signed in 2007 – with the New York laboratory Regeneron. “This partnership has thrown us into the field of antibodies”, where we had no expertise, said Gary Nabel, Scientific Director of Sanofi. When working with partners, it is not only to take the work of others, “he said. Sanofi’s researchers have thus cooperated very early on (from the first clinical trials) to the development of Dupixent.
In neurology, another sector outside its scope, Sanofi has partnered with Voyager Therapeutics. In February 2015, the French laboratory injected 100 million in this small Boston biotech (70 employees), founded by veteran neurosciences Steven Paul. “I became an entrepreneur at the age of 60”, laughs the entrepreneur. Sanofi took part of the capital. Above all, he has secured an exclusive investment option in three gene therapy programs targeting neurological diseases: Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Friedreich’s ataxia. “I need money but also industrial and regulatory expertise. It is the interest of a deal with a large laboratory,” says Steven Paul. Options on programs that are very risky but that could yield big in case of success. Voyager Therapeuthics has already tested about fifteen patients its genetic drug against Parkinson’s disease, a disease affecting 4 million people in the world according to the World Health Organization.
Sanofi Genzyme BioVentures and Sunrise, researchers
In addition to these conventional agreements with biotech, Sanofi has acquired two “researcher heads”. Conducted by Bernard Davitian, Sanofi Genzyme BioVentures operates as a venture capital fund: the team identifies innovative biotech projects, which it finances alongside pure financiers. 30 biotechs were supported by Sanofi in 4 years, 9 of which went public. Unlike the financiers to which he is associated in these entrepreneurial adventures, the laboratory also pursues extra-financial objectives: this pool of companies is likely to nurture the group’s innovation and foster future collaboration agreements.
As a second researcher, the “Sunrise” program is a biotech factory: Sanofi invests from the start of a business, systematically in partnership with a venture capital fund. It is in this context that was created in 2012 the company Warp Drive Bio. Founded by Laurence Reid, the company, based in Cambridge, has set itself the ambition of revisiting, with the tools of genetics, a giant library of bacteria. The idea? Launching new antibiotics – a priority as antibiotic resistance becomes a threat to global public health – and anti-cancer drugs. “Sanofi owns half of the capital but we are encouraged to build an independent company,” says Ron Weiss.
Also from the Sunrise platform, MyoKardia was launched by Christine Seidman, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, with the capital of Sanofi and the Third Rock Ventures fund. Starting from the discovery of genetic mutations responsible for hereditary heart disease, MyoKardia has identified – with the support of Sanofi – a chemical molecule capable of preventing cardiac muscle degradation. A hope of treatment for these rare and neglected heart diseases. And, eventually, a drug that could get into the pipes …
More upstream, the French laboratory is also developing links with young researchers working on very fundamental questions, far removed from clinical applications. A physician-researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the most prestigious American university hospitals, Michelle Conroy asks about a scientific paradox still unexplored in the field of allergies. Laureate of the Sanofi Innovation Program – a scholarship claimed by a hundred young researchers, the young woman received a funding of $ 100,000. One more seed in the breeding ground of innovation.
In addition to these established mechanisms (collaborations, funds, scholarships, etc.), there is also the participation in the debates and think-tanks in Boston. For example, Sanofi participates in the NewDigs think tank, an initiative launched by MIT to change the economic models of pharmacy.
What about the 5,000 French researchers?
On the other side of the Atlantic, what role do the 5,000 French researchers of Sanofi – a third of the 16,000 researchers in the group? “The expertise of the French teams in virology and chemistry was very important,” says Gary Nabel, “and we use it today in immunology (one of the priority therapeutic areas for Sanofi). Sanofi has also converted a large part of its French scientific teams to the “development” of medicines, that is to say to the piloting of clinical trials. In peripheral? The largest market capitalization in Paris, Sanofi remains financially anchored in France. But – should we deplore it? – its center of scientific gravity evidently deported to the west …