CRO Event: What contract research means to science and biotech

Images by Li Tai Fang

Contract research organizations (CROs) are becoming an integral part of the biotech research and development landscape, especially as big pharma continues to restructure its model for early stage discovery (January 16thpost), and everyone is taking this exploding market seriously.  However, the more we hear “CRO” the more confused some of us are as to what constitutes a CRO and how CROs fit into the research-sphere.  On Monday, January 27th, the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR) Bay Area Chapter hosted “CROs: Partners and Disruptors in Drug Discovery” at the University of California, San Francisco to clarify some of this confusion.

An audience of nearly 200 registered attendees gathered to actively interact with a panel of CRO experts including Ken Meek, director of sales and marketing at Aragen Bioscience; Joe Francisco, Senior Client Services Scientist at Charles River Laboratories; Elizabeth Iorns, cofounder and CEO of Science Exchange; Jesse McGreivy, Chief Medical Officer at Pharmacyclics; and Kitty Yale, Senior Director at Gilead Sciences, Inc. The panel began by summarizing CROs as any entity willing to perform research for a second party for pay. The research includes everything from basic discovery to clinical trials. The panelists emphasized the importance of CROs to the biotech industry at all levels, but particularly startups and early stage ventures. David Rabuka, founder of Redwood Bioscience, did not attend the event but commented prior to his talk at the BioScience Forum event later in the week that CROs are essential to minimizing research costs and keeping startups viable. For the remainder of the organized discussion, panel members fielded questions from attendees including what are the drivers for the growth of CROs, of which increased regulatory challenges topped the list, and how is the perception of PhD scientists accepting jobs with CROs improving as CROs become more common.

As outsourcing increases, established CROs are growing to meet rising demand. Charles River, founded in 1947 on the shores of the Charles River in Boston as a provider of lab animals, has grown to locations in 14 countries, 25 locations in the US alone, offering services from toxicology to pre-clinical services. In addition, larger companies looking to expand their service portfolio are rapidly acquiring smaller providers. Aragen’s 50 or so employees are about to reach a larger market as Aragen’s acquisition by GVK BIO, an India-based CRO, was announced on January 29th. One attendee, perhaps with entrepreneurship on his mind, inquired what is missing in the enormous, but potentially crowded, CRO space? All the panelists agreed that providers of extremely specialized services are difficult to find. This is where the highly specialized research of academic labs becomes a commodity and Science Exchange is working to fill this need. Science Exchange puts consumers in touch with registered contract research providers. According to CEO Dr Iorns, several of the registered providers are academic labs looking to raise money through offering their niche services. Academic labs are realizing this is a perfect platform for fundraising to compensate for the deficits created by reductions in traditional funding. Furthermore, acting as a CRO avoids the complications surrounding crowdsourcing the biological sciences.

After the panel discussion, Sajith Wickramasekara, founder of Benchling, commented, “The increasing use of CROs by researchers highlights a greater trend in life science: an industry that’s embracing collaboration and specialization.” With greater collaboration comes the need for more formal data organization and sharing between team members. Benchling, which provides a cloud-based forum for analyzing and sharing DNA sequences and molecular biology tools is one of many startups capitalizing on these needs.

During the post-panel networking session, attendees, including a diverse mix of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and industry scientists, enjoyed food and drinks while making new connections. Benjamin Gaub, a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley working to restore vision in blind animals through retinal reanimation as well as developing echolocation devices for the blind, appreciated the time as an opportunity to, “expand my network and get some exposure to industry.” It may be fair to assert that by brining people together for these events, OBR is providing a CRO-like service for networking. 

For more information on upcoming OBR events visit our site here

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