Pamela Demain executive director of corporate licensing for Merck, in Whitehouse Station, looks at the biopartnering conference from the perspective of big pharma.

To build relationships and learn about potential opportunities, Merck employs 16 scientific scouts — senior scientists whose whole job is to make contacts with companies and venture capitalists to fund these companies. “They know exactly what sort of opportunities we are looking for,” she says.

Depending on its own projects, Merck may need to partner for basic science and drug discovery, preclinical and other studies, or clinical trials. Or maybe it will have launched a product in the United States and then may look for a company with a presence in Japan to support the launch there. And, as with all big pharma, she adds, “We are always looking for where the next new blockbuster is going to come from.”

Merck also does many deals with universities, sometimes licensing in things like cell lines and other technologies. If a project bears fruit and Merck brings a compound to market, the university gets milestones during development and royalties at the end.

Doing deals with people she has met up with at partnering conferences may take two or three years or might be immediate, depending on what the asset is, how soon it will be ready, and how excited Merck is about the science, says Demain. Because these partnering meetings are so productive for the company, Merck has representatives at about 15 to 20 meetings a year.

Of course there has always been competition among big pharma for hot compounds, but it has gotten more intense. “It has heated up over the last 10 years because all of big pharma are looking to fill their pipelines,” says Demain. “If a potential drug has already been through phase 2 and is going into phase 3, a number of companies will be looking at the asset at the same time.”

In fact, it is in the biotech’s interest to make sure everybody is looking at it at the same time so the biotech can decide on an appropriate partner. “It is always about money to a certain extent,” says Demain, “but it is also about the company match, the fit of the two companies in terms of philosophy and goals.” If the biotech is looking to market a drug in Japan and China, it will need a partner with the ability and capability to market around the world. If its focus is just the United States, its needs will be different.

In the end the right partner for a biotech is one that supports the biotech’s goals. “Some small companies want to remain research companies and not get into marketing and sales,” says Demain. “Others want to be the next Amgen and Genentech, growing from a small research-focused company to one with sales capabilities.” Some biotechs may just want to learn marketing skills from the big pharma partner. A company like Merck must, therefore, listen carefully to potential partners.

If Merck is interested in a biotech’s patented intellectual property, it may have to set up an early-stage research collaboration. Merck has made three separate deals with a Belgium company, Galapagos, which has a special platform technology for identifying new and clinically relevant drug targets and therapeutic genes.

Demain lived in Westfield until high school when her family moved to Massachusetts. Her father had worked at Merck doing basic research in the laboratory for 15 years, then became a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he stayed for 30 years. He retired at age 75 and became a part of an institute at Drew University for retired scientists. Her dad, now 83, still has a lab at Drew. Her mother was a homemaker.

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with a degree in biology and microbiology, Demain got a research position in a laboratory in Milan, Italy. After she got her master’s in business administration, with a focus on international business, at American University in Washington, D.C., Demain came to Merck in 1981 as a management trainee in international marketing. Although she had signed on for what she thought would be only two years, she has never left.

After Demain moved through positions of increasing importance in marketing, she launched a major product around the world, Primaxin, an injectable antiobiotic that saved many lives in the 1980s. At Merck she has worked in marketing communications, advertising, and promotions; spent a couple of years in strategic planning; and then moved to licensing. After another stint running the marketing department, she says, “I came back to licensing to change our image in the marketplace as a licensing partner.”

She has been happy her entire tenure. “They move you into different areas, and it’s a wonderful learning experience,” she says. “I had so many opportunities I’ve stayed for 29 years.”

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