Challenge accepted: Teams seeking a quantum shift for new antiviral agents through Germany’s federal agency SPRIN-D

Dr. Maximilian Strunz

In 2021, the German Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation, SPRIN-D, announced an antiviral challenge to come up with new approaches for the development of antiviral therapeutics. Biopharma Excellence was asked to provide support during the selection process and to assume a coaching role for all selected teams. This case study explores the challenge, how it is being conducted, what the teams are doing and how our experts are guiding each team.

In an effort to drive scientific innovation in Europe, the German Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation, SPRIN-D, has set up a series of programs and challenges with the common goal to drive inspiring and novel concepts a step further into translation. Among these challenges is the Antiviral Challenge, which seeks to encourage scientists in academia or emerging biopharma to come up with creative ideas to address serious global viral threats.

The Antiviral Challenge is a first-of-its-kind, three-year program established to encourage new potential therapies, platforms and antiviral agents that could help in future pandemics. Biopharma Excellence was asked by SPRIN-D to help with the overall process and to provide coaching for the teams, which were selected by a scientific jury. The first year of the challenge, which involves nine teams, began in November 2021. To ensure the best support for those selected, we held internal meetings to identify the right coach for each team depending on scientific focus and background.

In our coaching role, we support the teams with organizational and operational tasks alongside the development of their antiviral innovation product or platform. This may range from direct support with their experiments, or defining product and program strategy, to regulatory agency interactions and first support in negotiations for subcontracting external service partners, finding investors, and connecting the teams for collaborations in the pharmaceutical industry. If desired by the team, we also contributed to preparing a spin-off company, or support in IP questions.

Since the challenge began in the midst of the pandemic, in-person meetings between teams and coaches were difficult. While we couldn’t get together, the quality of our work and our commitment to the teams we coached was not impacted.

As restrictions on meeting eased, the organizers made a decision to hold a “Challenge Days” get-together in Leipzig, Germany on 27 and 28 June, 2022. The sessions comprised “fireside chats” on science and business given by industry experts, sessions on regulatory considerations, breakout sessions and team presentations. A key objective was to encourage free communication and collaboration to foster an exchange of ideas and to make sure the teams connected with the right expertise for their projects.

The fireside chats provided an opportunity for the teams to learn about the kinds of issues they might encounter, while the breakout sessions allowed participants to ask specific questions of the speakers and coaches. Both days included regulatory and business discussions for the teams. For example, Dr. Christian Schneider, the head of Biopharma Excellence, spoke about key considerations when interacting with regulators. On day two, patent lawyers shared insights on how intellectual property can drive value creation in biotech.

Each team gave a pitch presentation highlighting how their innovations could change the world in the next five to 10 years if their project succeeds. Teams were expected to make their case in terms that those without a scientific background would understand.

Challenge Days reactions

Overall, the feedback has been largely positive from all participates. The open agenda, breakout sessions and opportunity to network with venture capitalists, investors, people from SPRIN-D, as well as industry experts and coaches from Biopharma Excellence, was widely appreciated.

SPRIN-D decided to evaluate the most memorable pitch, ranking the teams on what resonated, what didn’t, and the gaps that coaches can help teams to overcome. As the teams focus on progressing the science, our coaches help them to align their approach with current best practices. We help to shape their progress by providing external insights that, as researchers, they would not typically consider.

The feedback from SPRIN-D itself was also largely positive. They were happy with the outcomes and the way participants collaborated and the fact that so many people made the journey to Leipzig for the meeting.

An independent jury, which did not take part in the event to avoid any bias, will help to assess the teams’ projects. This jury consists of well-respected scientists and experts in the field.

While not all teams will make it into year two, the challenge is to find a solution to the dearth of antivirals, not a team-on-team challenge. SPRIN-D and the coaches are eager for the teams to collaborate to enable greater innovation.

What the teams are doing

The innovations and technologies being developed by the nine teams are hugely varied, with many exciting ideas emerging.

From trapping viruses in DNA origami shells to RNA-based and CRISPR-based antivirals and protein-derived solutions against different types of viruses, the teams have innovative approaches to be prepared for future viral pandemics. Some of the approaches may enable platform technologies for fast and adaptable solutions against newly emerging viral threats.

To make it to the next round, the teams must come up with a proof of concept in a relevant biological system. Some are using SARS-CoV-2 as their target, however, others have chosen different viruses, such as H1N1 influenza. Currently, the teams are preparing their application for the second year.

How the coaches support the teams

Our coaches at Biopharma Excellence had a kick-off meeting with the teams in December 2021 and then workshops were held between the coaches and their teams in January. During these sessions, we answered questions the teams had and provided some insights on how to navigate some of the difficulties they might encounter. The support we’re providing is as coaches, not consultants, which means the teams tackle the challenge itself and go to their coaches for support and scientific advice.

We very much appreciate working with the teams and SPRIN-D as we get the freedom to operate in a manner to best support each team. Meeting frequency is generally agreed between the coach and the team, during which time we share ideas, discuss progress, assess milestones, help them set up early quality systems, review reports from contract research organizations and provide briefings on how to engage with the regulatory authorities.

We also have monthly meetings between coaches so we can help one another to support the various teams and tap into the expertise within Biopharma Excellence generally. The goal of all the coaches is to help the teams move their programs forward and create a level playing field for all participants. We seek to stay as unbiased as possible and act as coaches for the advancement of innovative ways to address the antiviral challenge.

The challenge ends in 2024 and we’re excited to see how the teams progress. The support from SPRIN-D will only be available while the teams are part of the program, however, all can take advantage of connections with investors to seek more or new funding. And while only a few teams will make it to the next year of the program, all could potentially see their ideas become reality with the right support and funding.

About the author:

Dr. Maximilian Strunz is a senior consultant at Biopharma Excellence, focused on strategic biopharmaceutical drug development, integrated development strategies, program management biopharma and team leadership.

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