We recently worked with an organization that defines the lean, entrepreneurial startup model - 60° Pharmaceuticals. 60° Pharmaceuticals, run by Geoff Dow and a small team of advisors, is trying to change the model of drug development for neglected diseases - using crowdsourcing to build virtual teams for specific research projects. He then plans to invest a portion of the profits from drug sales into further disease research. He calls it the "Philanthropic-for-Profit" model. We asked Geoff to talk to us about his organization and his first Challenge, seeking a team to identify an early lead compound for the treatment of dengue fever.
Hi Geoff - thanks for talking with us today. You call 60° Pharmaceuticals a “Philanthropic for Profit” company. Can you explain what that means?
Hi and thanks for the opportunity to share our plans with the Solver community.
I personally believe that the goals of rewarding investors willing to take risks and achieving an important social objective are not mutually exclusive. I also think there is no fundamental reason that social missions should only be undertaken by 501cs.
From a practical standpoint it means that the company is structured in such a manner that it is feasible to seek a margin that is in line with community expectations given the kinds of diseases we are targeting. There will also be reinvestment of revenue into new neglected disease R+D. I perceive a great desire in the community for drug and vaccine makers to be more transparent about R+D costs and expectations regarding margins. We are thinking these issues through very carefully.
60° Pharmaceuticals has an interesting business model – with very few employees and a heavy reliance on open innovation and incentives to build virtual teams. What drew you to this model and how has it worked so far?
That’s an interesting story! The team I worked with to write the business plan had a very spirited debate about the Linux model versus the Microsoft model of innovation. What would work better for drug discovery? My personal perspective is that the best ideas come from the crowd, but there needs to be vision and ownership to move a product forward successfully. From a business standpoint I think it will also mitigate risk and keep costs down.
Everyone in the drug discovery and development community knows from personal experience that there is a lot of risk. We have all heard that drug development is expensive and takes a long time. I do think these factors act as a barrier to innovation, particularly for diseases where margins are going to be lower. The way out of that box is to provide a way to reimburse drug discovery and development costs throughout the value chain based on success in reaching development milestones, so that risk and reward are not such binary outcomes. The FDA’s priority review voucher is a step in the right direction, but isn’t a complete solution. Our goal at 60P is to pioneer an incentives-based approach for drug discovery for neglected diseases.
Your Challenge specifically targets dengue fever. Can you tell us about the disease and the current state of research?
My friends and family who have had dengue tell me the disease is worse than a very bad case of flu. I almost volunteered for a dengue clinical study until I was told it was worse than malaria, which I have personally experienced. Dengue can quickly progress in some cases to a severe form that may lead to shock, hemorrhage and death. People who experience it may be away from work or school for at least week, and need hospitalization. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that there are probably around 2.5 billion people at risk. We’ve done the math at 60P and we think there are around six million clinical cases causing an economic burden of around $1.7 billion annually. There are no drugs or vaccines approved.
I see this as an excellent time to be involved in dengue drug discovery. It is pretty clear that dengue drugs could play an important role in treating patients if they were available. While dengue vaccines are coming and will play a valuable role in protecting some of the most at risk population, we suspect there will remain a significant case load for the foreseeable future. The state of the R+D infrastructure is maturing rapidly. In the last few years, the experimental models have improved, and a lot of progress has been made on understanding the biology. I see their being a lot of interest in the research community over the coming years.
Where do you expect the partner to come from? Are you anticipating that there are already teams working on dengue that would join forces with you?
I think that teams will mostly likely come from small companies or from the academic research community. That is where the majority of inquiries have come from so far. A background in dengue is helpful, but not necessary, as long as the team has the capacity through collaborators or CROs to test compounds in appropriate screens. As a company we are agnostic about the target and approach, but most concerned about the strength of the team.
You focus your research on neglected diseases. What disease will you tackle next?
Stay tuned! We will be expanding. We are still evaluating the market opportunities, unmet medical need and status of the various global product development portfolios for a number of diseases. Next year our goal is to post a Challenge where the choice of neglected disease and approach is left open to the community. We will post an update on our website once we have firmed up our plans.
Is there anything else you’d like our Solvers to know about your Challenge or your organization?
The most frequent question we have received is for additional clarity on the size of the funding pool available to our future partners. To get to an early lead for dengue we have set a maximum pool of 250K inclusive of a prize and reimbursable costs to be divided up amongst all successful proposals. Within this cap, we are asking Solvers to define what incentive for success they think is reasonable, and what reimbursable costs are needed. We would also like to understand what funds the Solver is contributing as in kind costs to the effort.
The other question I have received is how many proposals will be funded. Assuming that many technically excellent proposals are received, we may select up to 3. However, this will depend on what kind of proposals we receive, and we won’t make a final decision until after June 5 when all the proposals have been received.
Very interesting - thanks and good luck!