Development of innovative therapies is mostly carried out by small and mid-size biotechs. Often however, the financial burden becomes too heavy just when the new molecule is ready to move to the clinic, risking that a groundbreaking new therapy never reaches the bedside. The Merck Advance Biotech Grant Program could be a lifeline for struggling biotechs.
“More than 60 percent of drugs in the pipeline today are being developed by emerging biotechs focused on innovative therapies for niche diseases with small patient populations,” Darren Verlenden, Senior Vice President of Bioprocessing at Merck, tells us.
“These companies face significant manufacturing and resource constraints when bringing their drugs to market. As part of our commitment to global health, our grant provides free Merck products and services to help accelerate market entry of new therapies,” he adds.
Conceived in 2014, the Advance Biotech Grant Program has since been hosted annually, rotating between the US, Asia, and Europe. Thanks to its great success, Merck doubles the frequency of the grant starting from this year.
“We will first launch the rejuvenated program in Europe; after that it will rotate semi-annually between the three regions. During each round of the program, one first prize winner will receive €100,000 in products and services to help accelerate drug development, while a second and third place winner each receive €50,000 in products and services,” Verlenden explains.
Meet the 2016 winner: GeneQuine
So far, 14 companies have benefited from the grant. In 2016, Hamburg-based GeneQuine Biotherapeutics won the first prize to support their novel therapies for osteoarthritis, representing the most common joint disorder worldwide and a significant unmet medical need.
In a 2016 interview with us, Kilian Guse, GeneQuine’s CEO and co-founder stressed the grant’s value for their drug development. “If there’s anyone in the organization we want to approach, then Merck will make the introduction. They put us in touch with any relevant services and expertise,” Guse said.
Back then, a major challenge for GeneQuine was to manufacture their master cell bank, a first necessary step to produce their drug candidate according to Good Manufacturing Practices. As a small biotech company, GeneQuine did not have access to the required expert skills and high-tech, certified facilities.
Thanks to the Advance Biotech Grant Program, GeneQuine received expert advice to help develop their upstream process, and finally used their prize to manufacture, characterize, and test their master cell bank with Merck’s pharma & biopharma manufacturing and testing services called BioReliance® services.
More lucky winners
That same year, the second prize went to TILT Biotherapeutics (Finland), for their approach to use oncolytic viruses for tumor T-cell therapy. ReNeuron, a Welsh start-up, received the third prize for developing novel stem cell therapies targeting areas of significant unmet or poorly met medical need.
All winners of the grant received not only products, but also mentoring and counseling to help speed up that difficult development phase from preclinical success to manufacturing.
“Through our years of interaction with customers, we have gained a deep understanding of their pain points and challenges that forms the basis for our Advance Biotech Grant Program,” Verlenden adds. “The program supports biotech companies to solve their technical challenges and ultimately allows them to bring their innovative therapies to market faster.”
How to apply—and win
How to become one of the lucky award winners? Applying for the grant can be quickly done online. Applicants should describe the current project, the medical needs it aims to solve, and bioprocessing challenges they currently face.
Based on this information, a Merck committee of scientists, engineers, and business leaders selects up to 10 semi-finalists who are then interviewed individually to gain more insight on the projects and the issues they are struggling with.
“This is a grant application, not a lottery,” Verlenden points out. “We assess both the potential scientific and societal merit of the projects—and focus on those challenges that we believe our products, services, and thought leadership can help solve.”
The current call for applicants is for biotech start-up companies from the UK, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
Applications are open until the end of October, and the winners will be announced at the end of November. The next Advance Biotech Grant Program call for applications will start in North America in November this year.