Ed Pagani, Associate Director for Health Technologies at U-M Tech Transfer, joined the Tech Transfer team in 2014, after an impressive early career working for such well-known healthcare companies as Pfizer, Sterling Winthrop and Beckman Coulter. Ed is responsible for the assessment, protection, marketing and licensing of promising medical technologies at U-M, primarily from the Medical School and the Life Sciences Institute. What follows is our conversation with Ed on his transition from industry to the university and his perspective on his work within U-M Tech Transfer.
IMPACT: Let’s start with how you came to be in Ann Arbor. What opportunity brought you here?
ED: I joined Pfizer in 1995 working in the Strategic Alliance Department at Pfizer’s headquarters for research and development located in Groton, Connecticut. Soon after Pfizer completed the acquisition of Warner Lambert Parke Davis (WLPD), I was asked to establish and oversee the Strategic Alliances function at the former WLPD R&D site in Ann Arbor, renamed Pfizer Research & Development. My wife, three children and I relocated to Ann Arbor in January, 2001.
IMPACT: What were your responsibilities at Pfizer?
ED: The role of Strategic Alliances at Pfizer was to in-license technologies and establish research collaborations with universities and biotechs to enhance and advance Pfizer’s drug discovery and development pipeline. I was also charged with evaluating and in-licensing small molecules and biological therapeutic candidates from the early discovery stage through Phase I clinical development. The annual external budget for Strategic Alliances for these transactions peaked at over 400 million dollars. I recall a project that we retained five companies to synthesize over a million compounds for Pfizer’s high throughput screening library at a cost of about 100 million dollars. With Strategic Alliances offices in Ann Arbor (MI), Groton (CT), La Jolla (CA), Sandwich (England), St Louis (MO), and Cambridge (MA), Pfizer was scouring the world for technologies that would secure its place as the #1 pharmaceutical company in the world.
IMPACT: Before joining U-M Tech Transfer as Associate Director of Health Technologies, you served on our National Advisory Board (NAB) for a number of years, while you were at Pfizer. Can you talk a bit about your work on behalf of the University in that role?
ED: I replaced David Canter on the National Advisory Board in 2004 and served until 2013 with part of that service as the chair of the NAB . The NAB provided advice, as it does today, to U-M Tech Transfer leadership and university senior administrators on “big picture” items and trends facing the department now and in the near future. During my tenure on the NAB, I recall discussing many programs that were implemented by U-M Tech Transfer, like the Mentors-in-Residence program and the creation of Ann Arbor SPARK. Other former recommendations by the NAB have resurfaced from time to time, like a technology park on the North Campus, and a University backed venture fund to support University startup companies.
IMPACT: How much interaction did you have with U-M Tech Transfer during your tenure at Pfizer? What were your impressions of those interactions?
ED: Pfizer picked up many of the research programs put in place by WLPD at the University of Michigan, so either someone from my department or I worked with U-M Tech Transfer. I also started new research collaborations with the University or signed new licenses for University technologies. Robin Rasor, former Managing Director of U-M Tech Transfer, and I would often reminisce about the times we would face each other in negotiations. I was told that I wasn’t the friendliest of negotiators at Pfizer, which Robin reminded me more than once.
IMPACT: Has your perception of the office changed since you have joined the Tech Transfer team?
ED: While serving on the NAB from 2004 to 2013, I observed continuous improvements and expansion in the ways U-M Tech Transfer interacted with faculty, companies and investors. During that time, many more university inventions were licensed to established companies or developed and commercialized by University startups. Across many metrics of success, U-M Tech Transfer has climbed into the top rankings among peer university technology transfer offices in the US. Our licensing activities continue to grow under the leadership of Bryce Pilz, who took over as Director of Licensing earlier this year. I am very fortunate to be a part of U-M Tech Transfer, representing the University on the other side of the table from industry.
IMPACT: Having come from industry, would you say that misconceptions exist about academic research and technology transfer?
ED: Now having been at Michigan for nearly four years supporting the invention portfolios of well over a hundred faculty at the Medical School, I can easily refute a conception by industry that universities are not positioned to conduct high quality research aimed at the discovery of new medicines. Unlike basic research by industry, validation of novel drug targets is a strength of university research, especially at the University of Michigan. Universities in the state of Michigan have benefited from the closure of the former Ann Arbor research sites of Warner Lambert Parke Davis and Pfizer, and the former research site of Pharmacia located in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Former employees working in drug discovery and development at these companies have remained in the region and work in University start-ups or are employed by Universities, creating a rich source of medicinal chemistry, pharmacokinetics and drug safety expertise. The University of Michigan is particularly strong in these areas, and other areas of drug R & D. Together with these resources, and support offered by the Center for Discovery of New Medicines, Michigan Center for Therapeutic Innovation, MICHR, Fast Forward Medical Innovation, and the core facilities at the Life Sciences Institute, university faculty can draw on a very strong foundation at the University for drug target validation and drug discovery and development. U-M Tech Transfer enables the development and commercialization of university inventions by first protecting the intellectual property, then finding a suitable industrial partner with the necessary experience, resources and ambition to take the product or service to the market. A misconception by some industrial partners is that a tech transfer office’s only interest is revenue generation. Revenue from license is an important consideration, as a sizable percentage of revenue is put back into university research, but revenue generation is not the only and greatest consideration. U-M Tech Transfer’s interests align with the desire of the faculty to use their ideas to improve quality of life, through, for example, the introduction of environmentally friendly products and services, and safer and more effective medicines.
IMPACT: What are some of the differences between licensing at a company versus at a university?
ED: In-licensing activities at a company are for the most part directed at solving an identified acute or long term internal problem, to enable or accelerate the path to commercialization. Out-licensing activities at a university are, for the most part, directed at finding an external party with an acute or long-term problem that can be solved by using University intellectual property (IP).
IMPACT: What specifically do you do as Associate Director of Health Technologies at U-M Tech Transfer?
ED: I work with faculty mostly at the Medical School to protect intellectual property and provide advice on developing their intellectual property for further development and commercialization by an established company or a start-up. I also work closely with University of Michigan colleagues in Fast Forward Medical Innovation, the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects, and the Center for Discovery of New Medicines, and external patent firms to support our faculty. The type of intellectual property I manage falls mainly within the areas of small molecule and biological therapeutics and clinical diagnostics. If we are all successful, I will find a commercial partner and negotiate financial terms and the terms and conditions of the license agreement.
IMPACT: I know it’s probably a difficult question, as your portfolio contains hundreds of technologies, but is there anything that you’re particularly enthusiastic about right now?’
ED: There are a dozen active programs at the University that I am particularly enthusiastic about right now, too many to describe here. Dr. Yossi Holoshitz is pursuing very potent peptides and orally bioavailable small molecules for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and associated bone erosion. Dr. Indeka Rajapakse is extending the work of Nobel Prize laureate Shinya Yamanaka with the aim of controlling the genome via the delivery of small molecule-like transcription factors. This work has enormous potential for the treatment of cancer. Novel chemistry emerging from the lab of Dr. Shaomeng Wang is producing orally bioavailable small molecules that disrupt protein-protein interactions. Highly desirable drug targets that were once thought to be undrugable with a small molecule approach can now be controlled. I’m very optimistic that researchers at the University will contribute to the discovery and development of many novel life-saving medicines.
IMPACT: I’m sure it’s a question you get asked all the time, but why is it so hard to discover and develop new drugs?
ED: Finding a man-made chemical or biological that has all of the required drug-like characteristics and is both efficacious and safe requires great skills, tremendous focus and some good fortune. Couple all of this to the cost of moving from an idea to an early stage clinical candidate that is still 2 years from Phase I evaluation and up to eight years from FDA approval, costs a lot of money.
IMPACT: When you’re not in the office, how do you spend your time?
ED: My wife and I enjoy a round of golf, and entertaining our good friends at our home. I’m also an amateur car mechanic and spend some time maintaining and upgrading my cars. Our two sons recently completed their third year and final year, respectively, playing division I soccer at Colgate University, and are currently on the soccer club Ann Arbor FC. We will be attending college soccer matches for another year.
IMPACT: And, lastly, what do you enjoy the most about working here?
ED: I enjoy the constant challenge of learning new science and approaches to licensing, working with faculty on developing IP that I anticipate will improve the health of a lot of people. In general, I enjoy my day to day interactions with faculty and my work colleagues, I come across many interesting people.