Where Einstein Meets Edison

Navigating Biotech Adolescence

Navigating Biotech Adolescence

Mar 29, 2011

Merrimack Pharmaceuticals is a Cambridge-based biotechnology company with a promising pipeline of monoclonal and multi-specific antibodies for cancer and autoimmune disease. Merrimack distinguishes itself by incorporating systems-level mathematical modeling, what the company calls Network Biology, in its choice of targets and design of therapeutics. For example, the company’s lead molecule is a monoclonal antibody against ErbB3, a receptor involved in growth signal processing that is related to the well-known cancer targets EGFR/ErbB1 (cetuximab) and HER2/ErbB2 (traztuzumab). Merrimack’s modeling suggests that cancer cells are more sensitive to ErbB3 interference than to disruption of other receptors in the family.

As its pipeline has matured – several molecules are now in phase II, with more coming soon – Merrimack has grown from a small start-up to a mid-sized biotech. This transition is essential if the company is to shepherd its molecules to the regulatory finish line and validate its emphasis on mathematical modeling. But growth can be disruptive too. How well Merrimack maintains its start-up culture and entrepreneurial values will determine how quickly it replenishes its pipeline, and by extension ensures its long-term survival.

Merrimack recognizes the importance of maintaining innovation and excitement, especially in its drug development unit charged with renewing the pipeline. The company has instituted a novel organizational structure called a POD (for “seed pod”) to emphasize these values and ensure that today’s growth doesn’t interfere with tomorrow’s potential.

I recently spoke with Merrimack’s Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Ulrik Nielsen (former postdoc at MIT in the lab of Peter Sorger), and asked him some questions about PODs, entrepreneurial culture, and Merrimack’s future.

MITER: Tell us more about the PODs.

Dr. Ulrik Nielsen: The PODs are the environment where new ideas at Merrimack get a chance to evolve into real projects. Once in a POD, the idea has funding and resources but is more shielded from the strategic planning processes of the greater company.  Though long term planning is necessary for therapeutic projects, in the PODs we felt that it may bring a lack of flexibility which could potentially stifle innovation and be a distraction. The goal is to spend almost 100% of time focused on research and testing out an idea to its fullest.

Each POD is composed of 1-5 scientists that work on a single idea. Each POD is part of a larger environment where cross-POD learning can take place. We also think that a huge piece of innovative scientific research comes from collaboration. The PODs proactively reach out to academic institutions to explore collaboration opportunities which we hope will spur new ideas.

The scientists who join a POD often either had the idea for the project or helped get support for the idea, but the PODs are also where many newly hired scientists first enter Merrimack. The typical lifespan of a POD is 6 to 24 months at which point (if successful) the project becomes a more independent “therapeutic design team” with a formal budget, strategic plan, etc.

MITER: How do the PODs integrate Network Biology?

UN: The motivation for the POD structure is to promote innovation through multidisciplinary work. Network Biology is about generating a systems understanding of pathways, drugs and patients. This is usually enabled by modeling and simulation that is accomplished by dedicated modelers and biologists working closely together. In our minds, a POD is the ideal place for this to succeed. 

MITER: Has Merrimack had PODs since the beginning, or is this a more recent development? 

UN: Actually, the motivation for the POD structure was largely to replicate the startup environment of a small company. When Merrimack was a small startup with only a few projects in research it in many ways resembled the current PODs program. We decided to formally organize the PODs a few years back to encourage that small company type of collaboration as we grow. 

MITER: Tell me more about this small company vibe that you’re trying to promote. What is it exactly? What other benefits do you see from the PODs? 

UN: Too often, basic research innovation is something that only happens in the startup phase of a company. Once a company has an innovative idea, it turns its focus to developing the idea into a product. We see the PODs as a means to extend the innovative phase of Merrimack indefinitely and a way to continually come up with new and innovative ideas to fill our pipeline and support our existing pipeline. By next year, Merrimack expects to have five product candidates in numerous clinical trials. The candidates are all first in class, all use different therapeutic formats including nanoparticles, bispecific antibodies, and mixtures of antibodies. A few of these even involve novel patient stratification ideas that are expected to lead to diagnostics for the drugs.  For the employees, I believe the PODs are a place where they can explore ideas that they are passionate about and where they can take an idea and really see it through to proof of concept.

The other benefit of the PODs program is that it is an area of great visibility for the scientists.  Due to the small project team size it is very clear what contribution each scientist is making. It is an opportunity for scientists to demonstrate leadership by advancing an idea into an actual project. We are always looking for scientists to join the PODs who strive for innovation and want to pursue their scientific ideas that could lead to novel therapies in an industry environment.

About

Jordi is a PhD student in chemical engineering at MIT and a writer for the Entrepreneurship Review. His thesis research applies the tools of protein engineering to vaccine development. He is interested in biotech entrepreneurship, particularly as it applies to global health and neglected diseases.