Iro organization

Impact investors are also eyeing the Triangle

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a three-part series of articles on LaunchBio’s Invest in Cures forum, published on the NC Biotech blog. The first is here and the second is here. This post originally appeared hereand is reproduced with permission.)


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – With impact investing on the rise, many of the nation’s largest healthcare foundations are stepping up their ground game in the Triangle. Harnessing everything from talent to solutions, they say they strive to tackle growing health disparities across the country, while generating profits at the same time.

This was highlighted at LaunchBio’s recent Invest in Cures forum at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Example: The American Cancer Society (ACS), the largest non-governmental funder of cancer research in the United States, spends approximately $130 million a year to find cures. Through its venture capital subsidiary, BridgeEdgehe recently named the Duke Cancer Institute Arif Kamal, MD, as the first Patient Leader to lead its patient support vision and strategic plans.

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Atlanta-based BrightEdge said Kamal, a nationally-recognized expert in oncology quality assessment and palliative care, will lead its “first single coordinated unit to accelerate progress against cancer through to its activities in contact with patients”. Kamal, whose Duke lab received a $24,000 Flash grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in 2019, will center his work on ACS from his home in Chapel Hill and maintain a small palliative care clinical practice at Duke Cancer Center.

“Dr. Kamal also has an entrepreneurial streak, with both a medical and business background,” said Karen E. Knudsen, MBA, Ph.D., executive director of ACS and its Cancer Action Network. unique combination makes him an ideal candidate to lead our patient support program.”

This is yet another signal that the venture capital world is waking up to impact investing and what North Carolina has to offer. With the Triangle’s ever-growing life sciences scene, industry insiders say the region is poised to play a pivotal role in this new capital-intensive environment.

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Loan for investment

BrightEdge CEO Alice Pomponio, who recently appeared as part of a list of “who’s who” speakers at LaunchBio’s Invest in Cures forum, said ACS has teams in 5,000 communities across the country. , including North Carolina.

He now works with the state’s leadership team to identify areas of greatest impact, she said, “a process that often reveals potential investment opportunities.” At the top of its priorities: addressing the “significant disparities” in cancer incidence and mortality rates that still exist in various populations.

Launched in 2018 with an initial investment of $25 million from ACS, BrightEdge invests in early-stage, for-profit companies developing advanced cancer-focused therapies, diagnostics, devices and technologies.

To date, the donor-funded impact fund has approximately $70 million and has made 17 investments, including immunotherapy drug developer Checkmate Pharmaceuticals, early detection biotech Freenome and medical software company TailorMed patient financial navigation.

However, the fund has not yet invested in the Old North State. While ACS is investing heavily in the state through grants — including 27 awards totaling more than $11 million to date — North Carolina still lags behind on the impact side.

Pomponio said that could soon change with Kamal’s appointment.

Its scope encompasses cancer control, patient navigation, educational programs, patient accommodation solutions, transportation services and all aspects of ACS functions that affect patients in 5,000 communities.

“The process of verifying the agreements is ongoing,” she said. “We are exploring potential investments across the country, including in North Carolina, which is obviously a hotbed of technology and innovation.”

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Redefining Success

For years, nonprofit disease foundations have awarded grants for basic science. But in recent years, there has been a growing shift to pursue their mission by establishing venture capital arms and investing directly in startups to drive commercialization.

Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, impact investments reached $2.3 trillion in 2020, according to the most recent report of the international finance group.

Alongside the ACS are local groups like the Raleigh-based Foundation Fighting Blindness. He recently launched his own retinal degeneration fund to fund treatments for ultra-rare blindness conditions. Many say the adoption of impact investing is driven, in large part, by a desire to address the stark disparities in health coverage, chronic disease, and mortality between racial and ethnic groups in the states. -United.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 60% of premature deaths are associated with social, environmental and behavioral circumstances. Only 10% are the result of inadequate clinical care and 20-30% are due to genetics.

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Opportunity, risk

However, funding research such as cancer therapies faces particular risks. Among them: the potential for regulatory issues or the uncertainty of performance in clinical trials.

Still, that shouldn’t stop some VCs from suing them, said John Stanford, executive director of Incubate, a coalition of venture capital organizations that represent the patient, investor and business communities.

“We have to be prepared to take more risks in certain areas that will disproportionately benefit these forgotten communities,” said Stanford, who describes itself as the “voice” of the early-stage life science ecosystem in Washington and appeared alongside Pomponio at the same time. forum. “It’s something we’re all looking at.”

Addressing the crowd of 100 gathered inside NCBiotech’s main auditorium, Standford said nine out of 10 investments fail, and it’s often difficult for VCs to take those risks in such an environment. limited in capital: “To break even, this 10th investment must yield a return of 1,000%.

But he remained optimistic.

“We’re at a point with a good amount of capital,” he said. “I hope you see VCs tackling equity and redefining what success looks like.”

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Expand clinical trials

The American Medical Association said it was doing just that – and has already made an investment in the Triangle to prove it.

Through its Health 2047 fund that focuses on early stage startups, the Silicon Valley-based innovation company recently created SiteBridge Search, an Integrated Research Organization (IRO) headquartered in Chapel Hill. The startup “democratizes” clinical trials by reducing barriers for sites and participants. This includes the ability to conduct “point-of-care” testing versus large traditional academic institutions.

“During one of our conversations with the Duke Clinical Research Institute, we were asked to review their portfolio,” said Lawrence K. Cohen, CEO of Health2047, who declined to disclose terms of the agreement. “It jumped out at us as an interesting opportunity to help shape and market.”

Studies suggest that there is an underrepresentation of marginalized communities in clinical trials, particularly individuals from black and Latinx communities.

Cohen said SiteBridge is building a “national network of small community practices” to conduct research in the “hardest to reach” communities.

“The pharmaceutical industry has faced challenges navigating the fragmented small and community practice space,” he said. “Small and community physicians need a pathway to engage in trials. That’s why Health2047 launched SiteBridge Research.

Kirsten Axelsen, senior policy advisor at DLA Piper, said improving fairness in clinical trials must be a priority.

“There were about 50 drugs approved last year, and five or six had representation that was equal for blacks and Hispanics in their part of the United States. So that’s still dismal,” he said. she stated. “Obviously this is a huge lost opportunity.”

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