Innovation Leaders Provide Advice for Retina Start-Ups and the People Who’d Like to Work for Them

Product development in retina is a matter of suitors. That is, people looking for the right product development team to join, and early stage companies hoping for the right strategic partner to collaborate with.

Both received advice from the industry panel discussion during last week’s virtual OIS Retina Innovation Showcase from a panel of innovators – two from early stage companies, two from well-established ophthalmic brands. Moderator Firas M. Rahhal, MD, a partner and executive with the venture capital firm ExSight Ventures and a retina specialist with Retina Vitreous Associates Medical Group in Southern California, gleaned panelists’ insights on what innovators thinking of joining an early stage company should look for in a company, and what strategic companies are looking for in those businesses.

Advice for Talented People
For people looking to join an early stage company, it comes down to three variables, said Ram Palanki, PharmD, SVP, commercial strategy and operations at REGENXBIO: science, capital, and people. Dr. Palanki has played pivotal roles in a number of organizations, among them Santen, Thrombogenics, Neovista, and Genentech, and at just about every stage of commercialization.

“Science is the most important thing, and then how do you move the science forward?” he said. “You’re going to need the capital to move it, and then the people really become an integral part of that whole process.”

There are also questions to ask about the asset the company is building itself around, Dr. Palanki advised. “The first thing you want to ask is where does it fit? Is it a first-in-class product? Is it a best-in-class product? Does it clearly get to the unmet need?” Milestones are also critical in raising capital and attracting people who can move the asset forward.

“Any time you go into the start-up world,” he said, “you want to have a clear line of sight toward how the next five years are going to look based on the science you have, the capital you can raise, and the people you can bring in to start building out a serious organization.”

What’s the Interest, and Timeline?
Jay Duker, MD, wears two hats: as chief strategic scientific officer of EyePoint Pharmaceuticals, and as ophthalmologist-in-chief at Tufts Medical Center and director of the New England Eye Center. His advice for innovators sizing up a company to join: “You’ve got to ask yourself the question, what’s the interest?” He admitted that as a practicing retina specialist, he comes to the corporate world with a different perspective than an executive-for-hire. For that person, it’s about how much the three pillars Dr. Palanki talked about – science, capital, and people – can be “de-risked,” Dr. Duker said.

There’s also the product development timeline to take into consideration. “You can have a great idea and it can be too early, and I think we’re seeing that in some ways in some of the AI [artificial intelligence] companies because there’s just not a payment model for it,” he said. “You can have a great idea and it may be too late, because one of your competitors may have completely changed the market.”

He also advised trying to envision the clinical studies and, eventually, the product label. “You’ve got to have that end goal in mind, which is FDA approval under a certain time frame with an amount of approval and a label that’s going to enable you and your investors to be satisfied with the result,” Dr. Duker said. That could be a five-year window, and, he added, “nothing ever goes linear with these companies in development.”

Allergan’s Wide Net for Retina
So what are strategic partners looking for in retina? “It really all fundamentally boils down to what is your strategy,” said Andrew Stewart, associate VP, US commercial retina at Allergan. For Allergan, that’s now within the context of a larger organization, AbbVie. “Allergan, in particular, has made a strategic decision to focus more on pharmaceutical therapeutics and less on surgical and surgical operating tactics,” he said.

In retina, Allergan’s net is wide. “If we were talking about an early stage therapeutic within retina regardless of the stage of development, if we were looking within geographic atrophy and a very untapped, not well-treated area, there’s no stage of development that we wouldn’t think is uninteresting,” he said.

Allergan would take a different approach when evaluating an emerging glaucoma therapy. “It would have to have a really special profile or a really special MOA [mechanism of action] that would be highly differentiated for us to even look at that early,” Stewart said. In that case, the candidate would need to be in Phase III or beyond for Stewart and his team to get “super excited.”

For Alcon, It’s Asset Quality
“The asset quality is the most important to us,” said Paul Hallen, VP and global head, retina and glaucoma at Alcon. That comes down to “the degree of unmet need and how well it addresses the opportunity, the effectiveness, the market attractiveness, the size, and of course the risk.” When it comes to developing a product either internally or externally, his team is “agnostic.”

“As far as stage of development, we’re interested in any stage, but the level of risk and the number of external companies pursuing that particular area is of a consideration,” Hallen added. “So is there just one company, or are there three?”

If multiple companies are in the running, Alcon may engage them but monitor the situation, “letting the data streams play out and seeing which one is really going to be the winner,” he said. “You don’t want to pick the wrong horse early.”