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A new era of unprecedented collaboration between philanthropists and academic institutions is underway in the biotechnology field, fueled initially by the demands of the coronavirus pandemic and then by a major shift in the funding landscape.

In the biotechnology sector, success is heavily reliant on cost-effective research and development as well as relationships with accomplished scientists at top-tier academic institutions. That’s why high-profile partnerships between philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and scholars have been proliferating in recent years.

In 2004, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology set aside their academic rivalry to form the Broad Institute, a joint research venture backed by billionaire philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad to help scientists tackle molecular medicine challenges. More recently, Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, pledged $600 million through their charitable initiative to fund a non-profit research center in San Francisco. The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub brings together scientists and engineers from Stanford University; University of California, Berkeley; and University of California, San Francisco to fight diseases.

In other words, the biomedicine sector is no longer business as usual, especially for academics, said Dr. Lloyd Minor, dean of Stanford University School of Medicine, who spoke at a biotechnology event hosted by STAT and underwritten by Brunswick in New York.

“We may hope for a return to the era in which philanthropists simply gave money to institutions rather than starting their own institutions. But I don’t think we’re going back to that world.”

Dr. Lloyd Minor, dean of Stanford University School of Medicine

Navigating new relationships in principled fashion

Now, the goal for academic institutions is to collaborate with these new non-profit models in a way that allows them to maintain their independence and produce unbiased research, basically behaving as they would with for-profit firms.

“Number one is that our faculty have to have absolute academic freedom,” Minor said. He cited a study Stanford conducted with Apple to determine if the Apple Watch app can identify heart rhythm irregularities. Stanford maintained full control of the research and results, which have since appeared in the peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine. “We were going to publish what we found, period,” he said.

Other principles Stanford considers before embarking on any new collaboration: Is it an appropriate use of the faculty’s time and resources? Does it enable the faculty to continue to succeed? And does it require an exclusive relationship with the partner?

“We try to avoid exclusive relationships,” Minor said. “We want to be open to partnering with multiple institutions.”

Innovative ways of tackling “complex” problems

Meanwhile, the nature of these types of partnerships keeps evolving.

This year saw the launch of the Arc Institute in Palo Alto, which has also partnered with Stanford University, UC Berkeley, and UCSF to explore the root causes of complex diseases. While the institute is inspired by the Chan Zuckerberg and Broad Institute models, it differs in that it pays the salaries of select tenured, tenure-track, or adjunct faculty at its partner academic institutions so that they can pursue their research in an “unfettered fashion,” according to the institute’s website.

Arc’s donors — including its founding donor Patrick of Collision (co-founder and chief executive of the payment firm Stripe) —announced that they will contribute more than $650 million to the institute so that it can fully sustain the scientists and their research for renewable eight-year terms.

A for-profit biotech research company has also emerged this year. Altos Labs raised $3 billion from investors and recruited some of the world’s leading scientists from academia and industry to explore how to rejuvenate cells that are affected by aging and other stress factors.

The company, based out of California and the United Kingdom, aims to help “open a new vista into the medicine of the future” by integrating the best features of academia and industry, Rick Klausner, the company’s chief scientist and former director of the National Cancer Institute, said in a statement.

As new collaborations take shape, Minor said, they share a common goal: “So much of biomedical advance today is dependent upon bringing people and approaches together in a coordinated, synergistic way  to solve the most complex problems.”

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