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If ever an industry needed to find new ways of marketing itself, the currently floundering CRO business certainly fills the bill. A number of industry observers and insiders argue that Internet technologies could play a crucial rule in transforming R&D outsourcing from its role as a temporary means of boosting capacity to that of drug development partners. Each of the top three CROs have, in fact, devoted significant resources to building Internet capabilities. But the most publicized and ambitious such effort from Quintiles Transnational Corp., which is attempting to leverage its substantial financial resources, as well as the advantages of having a major commercialization outsourcing business that complements its drug development operations, to create an Internet platform whose scope the competition simply cannot match.
Quintiles is investing heavily in building a platform of web-enabled technology tools for clinical development that it hopes will nudge Big Pharma towards wider adoption of that technology and foster the kind of strategic partnerships that many see as crucial to the future health of the CRO industry.However, despite a consensus that the Internet will eventually revolutionize the way that clinical trials are done, there's also agreement that wide-spread adoption of web-based studies is a ways off.One likely reason that drug companies have moved slowly in this area is that they've been bombarded with pitches from start-up technology companies, promising to transform the clinical study process, but seemingly lacking the infrastructure and financial strength to assure that they can follow through on those promises.Quintiles is looking to use the critical mass of its own resources, and those of its partner, WebMD, to develop the scaleable, supportable, and enterprise-wide solution that it believes Pharma is waiting for. But even for Quintiles, pouring money into web-enabled processes that are unlikely to yield any near-term rewards won't rekindle interest among investors already disappointed by the continuing industry slump.Nonetheless, Quintiles will need to bear the short-term stock hit if it is to reap the possible long-term benefit of moving away from the increasingly low-margin fee-for-service model to one based on more lucrative partnering agreements in which it works with Pharma to re-tool clinical development.
Most genomics, combinatorial chemistry, and other biotech service businesses have been slow to provide clients the anticipated value, either in targets or compounds. Meanwhile, their competitors have caught up, commoditizing the technologies of even the industry leaders. With this lesson in mind, a new group of start-ups, pursuing "validated target discovery" technologies and the possibility of much faster timelines to targets and compounds, is racing to snare high-value partnerships while their technologies still have unique value. The partnerships won't leave all the chemistry and preclinical work to the clients--the low-risk strategy platform companies used to pursue--but will instead pay enough money so that the new start-ups, like Rigel and Arcaris, can create fully-integrated drug discovery platforms capable of producing IND-stage products. These start-ups need to take on the added risk in order to generate the required upside and create the only kind of enduring, high-value intellectual property in the drug industry: products themselves.
Eager to join the pharmaceutical elite, Hoechst needs to cut costs without creating more labor unrest. As it merges with Rhône-Poulenc into Aventis, HMR is outsourcing all US development to the CRO, Quintiles, looking to cut costs by $100 million over five years and provide a benchmark for the rest of HMR's worldwide development program. Moreover, both Quintiles and HMR hope to use the collaboration, perhaps in tandem with outside investors, to fund additional development projects; Quintiles would be assured the development work, and receive some of the drug's upside; HMR would be able to delay its own buy-in decisions until the projects had generated more actionable data. But the deal raises conflict-of-interest questions: will Quintiles' other clients shy away from a company with extra incentives to develop particular drugs-either those in which it has an equity interest or those of a client with whom it has a special relationship?
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