Why cancer research needs business development – now more than ever

Meet Fred Hutch’s Dr. Niki Robinson, the woman who’s helping make it happen
Niki Robinson
Dr. Nicole (Niki) Robinson joins Fred Hutch Monday as the new vice president of business development and industry relations. Bo Jungmeyer / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Nicole (Niki) Robinson remembers a period in her childhood when she wanted to be a bus driver.

“That was a pretty fleeting moment though,” laughed Robinson, who will join Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Monday as the new vice president of business development and industry relations.

Short-lived dreams of public transit notwithstanding, the 39-year-old research commercialization expert has always loved science. Robinson fell in love with the exploration behind basic biological research in college at Miami University. She later realized that her true interests lay in how to translate those research discoveries to help patients.

“I knew (since I’m not) a clinician that wasn’t something I was going to do — I wasn’t going to take the research literally from the bench to the bedside — so I started looking for other ways to help,” Robinson said.

Between that realization and her decision to move to Seattle to lead Fred Hutch’s Business Development and Industry Relations office (formerly known as Industry Relations and Technology Transfer), Robinson traveled an impressive career path that included earning a Ph.D. in cell physiology from the University of Chicago and nine years heading the technology transfer and commercialization development team at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where her leadership garnered more than $60 million in licensing revenue for the hospital.

‘We can’t get the drugs out fast enough’

Business development teams at nonprofits like the Hutch help move research discoveries from their earliest stages to a product or technology that can be marketed. Their work is important in part because technology transfer and commercialization provide additional financial support to fuel future nonprofit research, said Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland, but more importantly, adding industry partners to the later stages of technology development means new treatments and other clinical tools ultimately get to patients faster.

Nonprofit cancer research centers like the Hutch need that added speed, Gilliland said, especially with immunotherapies poised to launch a sea change for the many people living with and dying from cancer.

“We’re sitting on top of these transformative treatments. There are people out there with cancer who are dying as we sit here talking, and we can’t get the drugs out fast enough,” he said. “That’s where we need to think about more innovative approaches to raising resources.”

Fred Hutch receives the vast majority of its funding from the National Institutes of Health. With about $200 million in support annually, the Hutch is consistently among the top NIH-funded cancer centers in the country, Gilliland said, but the buying power for those dollars declines every year. With a stagnant NIH budget, fewer and fewer grants successfully make it through that funding process, meaning many scientists are spending more of their time writing grant applications and less time in the lab or leading their research teams.

These NIH funding challenges are a problem, but not insurmountable, Gilliland said. The larger issue he sees for the Hutch and other nonprofit medical centers is that by waiting the months or even years it can take to receive federal grant dollars to test a promising translational idea, we waste patients’ valuable time.

“We really have an acute need as patients are struggling with their metastatic, potentially fatal diseases to move these things forward as quickly as we can,” he said. “So we can take this into our own hands and say, we’re bringing intellectual property that has value that can help us monetize the efforts to try to bring these things forward more rapidly.”

In the past, the Hutch hasn’t had to focus so much on the commercial value of its discoveries, Gilliland said, partly because NIH funding was sufficient to sustain most of its research. But that landscape is changing, and that’s why he’s thrilled that Robinson is joining the Hutch.

“This is very new space for academic organizations. We feel very fortunate to have Niki coming because she’s got a great track record of success,” Gilliland said. “There are not a lot of people out there like her, so we’re really excited about having her here to help us continue to develop this approach.”

Robinson has seen the power of translational research in her own life. When she first joined Cincinnati Children’s in 2006, her technology transfer team helped launch the biotech company Assurex Health based around a genetic test developed at the hospital that improves medication and dosage accuracy for children with neuropsychiatric and other conditions.

Several of Robinson’s family members and friends actually took that test, she said, and it made an incredible and immediate difference when they received the right medications for their conditions.

“I’ve seen it very personally, which is awesome, that you can see the science truly translated into what I see every single day in my life,” she said.

A scientific matchmaker

Robinson sees commercial development as an essential step on the pathway from research discovery to diagnostics and therapies that will benefit patients. Scientific discovery and medical practice are essential but often very separate worlds, she said.

“You’ve got to figure out a way to marry the two. I think of myself as a matchmaker,” Robinson said. “My job is to find really smart entrepreneurs on the outside or companies that have pipelines that fit with what we’re doing here, and get them really excited about the early-stage discoveries that we’re making that can truly change the outcomes for the patients.”

Richard Mitchell, Fred Hutch’s director of business development, agrees about the importance of commercial partnership.

“To actually go all the way to FDA approval and to market a new drug or new diagnostic is really beyond the scope of our expertise and what we do, and also beyond what is funded by our principal funding sources,” Mitchell said. “So we have to work with commercial partners to take our discoveries from the lab to the clinic.”

It costs approximately $1 billion to bring a new therapy from discovery to market, Mitchell said — and that dollar amount includes all the related discoveries that fail along the way.

“It’s a risky business to take an early-phase discovery from the discovery phase all the way to the clinic,” he said, and that’s why we need private industry to help assume some of that risk.

There are two general ways that nonprofit research discoveries can make it to market: through licensing or through spinoff companies. Individual findings can be licensed, exclusively or non-exclusively, to existing pharmaceutical or biotech companies. One such example — and the Hutch’s biggest financial success story to date, Mitchell said — is the basic discoveries made at the Hutch in the late 1980s that led to the development of the multiple sclerosis drug Tysabri (natalizumab).

As for spinoff companies, many technology transfer offices measure their success based on the total number of spinoffs they generate. But Mitchell and others in his department don’t feel that’s the best approach.

“Our office has been much more focused on companies that have the potential to raise a significant amount of start-up capital,” he said, listing the companies recently founded on Hutch discoveries Juno Therapeutics, Ikaria, Blaze Bioscience, Presage Biosciences, Adaptive Biotechnologies and Faraday Pharmaceuticals.

Companies spun out of the Hutch in the past 10 years now employ more than 400 people, Mitchell said.

Focus on the end game

In her first weeks and months at the Hutch, Robinson will be doing a lot of what she loves best — exploration. She’s been brushing up on her cancer biology with some recently acquired oncology textbooks, she said. And she envisions a lot of one-on-one meetings in her immediate future.

“In the first year at Cincinnati Children’s, I met with 300 researchers,” Robinson said. “I made it my mission to meet with everybody I could because that’s how you learn.”

Once she’s got the lay of the land internally, Robinson wants to focus on the landscape of the Seattle area overall.

“I love the external environment, and it feels to me like there’s a lot of buzz here,” she said. “Where does the Hutch sit in that? How can we become a bigger, broader player?”

Gilliland and Mitchell say Hutch-based start-up examples like Juno, a clinical-stage biotechnology company which was founded to further develop cancer immunotherapies and to make these new therapies available more broadly, are just the beginning. The Hutch's scientists and its commercial development experts are always focused on that which will help more patients live longer, healthier lives free of cancer. They both think the next 10 years is going to be an exciting time.

“There’s a real acceleration in the development of clinically relevant science,” Mitchell said. “I think we’ve got an opportunity over the next five to 10 years to see a huge growth in the impact on human health.”

Gilliland pointed out that in addition to the lives he believes will be saved from immunotherapies already being tested at Fred Hutch and elsewhere, the Hutch’s equity stake in Juno means that it may soon gain a new revenue source to fuel the next round of translational discoveries.

“We need to make sure … we’re putting patients’ interest first and, as a nonprofit, we’re taking any revenue streams generated from that opportunity and bringing it back in to develop new treatments for the next Juno that will benefit patients that have other types of cancers,” he said. “What I hope the end game is that we’re going to develop curative therapies for most cancers.”

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Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

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