GSK may seek links with startups

Staff WriterJune 3, 2009 

  • Holly Springs' appeal

    At the Raleigh Convention Center this week, the International Association of Science Parks conference included an exhibit hall with booths touting businesses and research parks as far away as Madrid,Spain; Malaysia and Mexico.

    One had a decidedly local flavor: Holly Springs' booth featured maps, photos and other marketing materials about the town's 130-acre Friendship site. Economic development officials with Holly Springs, bolstered by their success in attracting a Novartis vaccine plant now under construction, are advertising the nearby Friendship site as the perfect spot for a business park.

    The conference was a close, cheap place to reach potential investors and tenants from around the world, said Irena Krstanovic, economic development coordinator with Holly Springs. The town has been marketing the Friendship site, just off U.S. 1 in southwestern Wake County, for about 18 months and is increasing efforts to attract attention.

    Its booth had another lure: Holly Springs took business cards for a drawing to win an autographed picture of hockey star Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes.

    Staff writer Alan M. Wolf

— GlaxoSmithKline is considering setting up new facilities at its main research sites worldwide, including in Research Triangle Park, where it could help small biotechnology companies develop medicines.

Chief Executive Andrew Witty mentioned the plan Tuesday during a speech at the International Association of Science Parks conference in Raleigh, which attracted more than 800scientists and other officials from research parks in 52 countries.

By connecting promising startup companies to GSK's operations, the British drugmaker could lend its expertise, resources and lab space to "accelerate new technologies into a breakthrough," Witty said. In exchange, GSK would be able to bolster its business with new medicines.

"Startups could co-locate with us and create a new type of foundation for discovery," Witty said. The concept is in its early stages, but GSK is exploring new ways to foster innovation, even as it cuts costs and jobs amid slowing sales of its biggest drugs. Other efforts include small acquisitions and partnerships with other biotech and drug companies.

GSK was one of the earliest corporate tenants in RTP, which is now home to its North American headquarters with about 5,000 employees.

Here are other highlights:

On innovation "gold mines": Witty, who lived in North Raleigh during the late-1990s, also spent time in South Africa, where he visited massive gold mines that drill deep into the earth. On Tuesday, he compared innovation and discovery of ideas to the gold "seams" that miners seek. Those seams are valuable but don't last, forcing miners to dig to find the next one.

The pharmaceutical industry saw one seam in the late 1970s to early 1990s when a series of blockbuster drugs to treat AIDS and other diseases were discovered. The technology industry had another seam in the late 1990s with big breakthroughs in computing and the Internet.

Now, Witty said,. "We're looking for the next rich vein of discovery."

On GSK's commitment to innovation: Many people criticize big pharmaceutical companies and say they're simply in it for the money, Witty said. But it took years of expensive research at the company's RTP campus to develop important drugs, including AZT to treat AIDS. Also, work by Nobel Prize winners Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings at RTP led to Arranon, a medicine to treat a rare type of pediatric leukemia that affects about 400 children a year.

"Who else will develop a drug that benefits only 400 patients?" Witty asked.

On keys to fostering new ideas, business and jobs: One important element is making it easy for talented researchers in the academic world to work with industry, and vice versa. It's not enough to have big academic institutions nearby. There has to be a pro-business environment "to make the interface between industry and academia porous," Witty said. Part of that is overcoming "academic snobbery," which limits the transfer of smart ideas from academia to industry.

Another key is avoiding "buy local" or "buy cheapest" procurement efforts by narrow-minded politicians, Witty said. To spur the best new ideas and products, you have to let market dynamics influence investment decisions, he added.

Finally, in this age of global business, it's crucial to make it easy for foreign companies to navigate all the "local complexities" involved in setting up a new facility or factory, Witty said.

alan.wolf@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4572

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