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Pfizer Expanding Incubator Concept to Bay Area, Boston

Almost six months after Pfizer Inc. announced the first occupant of its La Jolla incubator, the pharmaceutical giant welcomed two new occupants and said last week that it will expand the program into the Bay Area and Boston.

Alex Polinsky, vice president and chief executive officer of the incubator, said the additions would follow a similar model to La Jolla’s program, which invests $10 million a year over five years in promising life sciences startups.

“The only difference is going to be that, in La Jolla, the companies are placed into the company’s building, where in other places it could be rented buildings,” he said.

Pfizer’s nearby research and development centers are located in Cambridge, Mass. and in South San Francisco.

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Heavily concentrated with life science companies, the Bay Area and Boston will likely produce the kind of candidates Pfizer looks for, according to Polinsky. He said Pfizer will consider applicants as they roll in.

“We don’t set any goals in terms of dates; when we have the right opportunity we’ll invest in it,” he said.

Pfizer unveiled plans in March to invest in innovative ideas as part of an incubator that could one day strengthen the company’s pipeline. With the goal of alleviating the burden of office administration, facilities management and other details outside pure scientific advancement, Pfizer agreed to provide funding, space and equipment in return for the option of acquiring exclusive rights to develop the technology or product that might result at a fair market value.

The incubator’s first resident was Fabrus LLC, which specializes in a technology to identify antibodies. Last week, the company announced it is also incubating Wintherix LLC, focused on identifying molecules that inhibit certain signals in cancer cells, and RGo Bioscience LLC, which will study the role of RNA in disease and develop novel ways to deliver RNAs into the human body.

“We have three now, we’re going to add a couple next year, and, in 2009, the first companies will start graduating so we’ll have new funding to start new companies,” Polinsky said.

Each startup is funded for two years and as many as eight companies can occupy the incubator at one time. On average, each company receives about $2 million a year.

“We started this program because we wanted to reach out to innovators, to people with ideas at a much earlier stage than we normally do,” Polinsky said. “Our hope is that we can access really innovative ideas very early on.”

Pfizer is not alone in its search to identify and fund early-stage companies and platform technologies. In 2004, San Diego-based Amgen Ventures, the venture capital arm of biotechnology giant Amgen, funded Accelerator Corp., a Seattle-based firm that supports work in vaccine platform technology and autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.

And Biogen Idec’s Innovation Incubator, dubbed bi3, introduced last year offers laboratory space, office space and shared equipment in an access-controlled environment adjacent to its Cambridge headquarters. Biogen Idec requires applicant research to be relevant to its own therapeutic areas of interest: neurology, oncology, immunology or acute cardiovascular.

“It’s really a mechanism to add additional molecules through our pipeline,” said Rainer Fuchs, vice president and executive director of bi3.

Big Pharma has looked to incubators as a new investment model to help it fill dried up pipelines and overcome sluggish drug sales as a result of some major drugs coming off patent.

Pfizer faces the task of boosting its drug pipeline even as it struggles with a cost-saving and restructuring plan that will eliminate about 10,000 jobs, or 10 percent of its work force, by the end of the year.

Kevin Kinsella, a general partner at Avalon Ventures in La Jolla, said he had doubts the incubator model would prove successful.

“Generally speaking, I think it’s a comfortable notion to think that you can put a bunch of smart people in a room and cover their shared services throw a ham sandwich over the wall and hope they’ll come up with something great that’s a real bankable product and technology,” he said. “One problem is you don’t create that esprit-de-corps of an entity that’s out there on a deserted island, so to speak, that has to fend for themselves.”

Instead of investing $50 million in biotechnology startups, Kinsella said Pfizer should consider making $5 million or $10 million investments in startup companies already vetted by venture capitalists.

Polinsky said Pfizer’s investment makes sense because $50 million is a small amount for a company such as Pfizer, which spends $7 billion a year in research and development, to invest in promising new technologies.

He said the investments Pfizer makes support enterprises and technologies too early for conventional venture capital.

Fuchs said Biogen Idec, which invests an average of $6 million in each company, is careful to allow scientists their own freedom.

“We’re happy to provide help and assistance by providing our expertise but we’re not going to tell them how to run the company,” he said. “We’re very careful here to preserve the independent, stand alone, entrepreneurial spirit here.”

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