Rethinking Frameworks in the Life Sciences: Perspectives from Real Estate and Precision Medicine

Within the life sciences, collaboration across stakeholders has been a key that enables innovation. In this episode of Mastering Innovation on SiriusXM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, Joel Marcus, Executive Chairman and Founder of Alexandria Real Estate Equities, and Dr. Liz O’Day, CEO and Founder of Olaris Therapeutics, explained how firms can push beyond traditional frameworks to deliver new solutions in their respective fields.

Marcus introduced Alexandria as a real estate company focused on life sciences and technology. As one of the first such firms, Marcus detailed the importance of their cluster and campus model. Given the collaborative nature of the industry, Marcus felt the need to move from individual buildings to campuses that integrated all participants. Dr. O’Day affirmed the advantages of this model, with Olaris currently residing on an Alexandria campus.

Olaris is unique in its own field, precision medicine. Unlike other companies focused on genomics, Olaris looks downstream of the genome at metabolites, which allows for more certain results and greater cost savings in drug testing. Furthermore, O’Day shared Olaris’ aspirations to expand toward preventative medicine by collecting biomarker data on past patients to inform decisions for future patients.

An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.


Joel Marcus (Executive Chairman & Founder, Alexandria)

Joel Marcus: One of the key strategies of the company back in 2004 to 2006 was that we pivoted from single buildings in those life science markets to the core campus cluster theory, following the teachings and learnings of Michael Porter from Harvard. We felt that that was the best way. This industry really is a vibrant, collaborative industry. They work together in many cases, whereas some industries, like the tech industry, are not nearly as collaborative and coalescing.

Nicolaj Siggelkow: This is intriguing, seeing a move from individual buildings to this idea of a campus. Kendall Square looks very different now than it did 20 years ago. What’s your vision when you think about a campus? What are the various pieces that you want to put into that ecosystem or cluster?

Marcus: In Cambridge, where Elizabeth resides today, we own and operate three big campuses: Technology Square, right across from MIT; One Kendall Square, which is where Elizabeth and her company are situated, just about two blocks away; and what we call the Binney Street Corridor or campus, which is a total of about 2 million square feet. Together, it’s about four or five million square feet of campus, literally within an adjacent walking distance. What you look for are wonderful amenities that allow the inhabitants to stay on the campus, to be efficient and to have those collisions and the interactions. You’ve got vibrant retail. You’ve got fitness. You’ve got a variety of conferencing opportunities.

What we also felt then on the campus was: it would be easy in Cambridge today to just lease a bunch of buildings or a campus to a big company. But that wasn’t really our vision. Our vision was to have the whole ecosystem on a campus, from startups like Olaris with Elizabeth to bigger companies. We just brought the Gates Foundation into One Kendall Square. It’s the first time they’ve ever done research themselves. To have an integrated campus with all the participants is really the key to making it work.

Siggelkow: Great. We’ll bring in Liz in a moment. I also want to hear her side, what advantages she gets from being part of that ecosystem, but let’s stick with Alexandria Real Estate for a moment. As companies grow, there is obviously this tendency to become broader, but you have really continued to focus on the life sciences. Now, I could imagine that as time goes on, once in a while, you see really great deals that are outside of your scope. How did you have the discipline to say no?

“To have an integrated campus with all the participants is really the key to making it work.” – Joel Marcus

Marcus: That’s a great question. We’ve worked for many years with Jim Collins of Good to Great, and he has this concept of being disciplined and having the right people on the bus, which we’ve tried to do. I think we’ve done a great job. We have a long-tenured team here. The other thing is to create multiple flywheels. Our base flywheel, which is our main business, is life science infrastructure. We do venture capital, we do thought leadership, and we do corporate social responsibility, all really integrated around the life science industry.

Back in 1998, we had a three-building campus down in Mountain View that was a laboratory. Two guys named Sergey Brin and Larry Page came to us and said, “We want to lease it.” We thought, “Nope, not really. You guys are tech tenants, and that’s not what we want to do.” They said, “No, this is really important to us. We’re just out from Stanford, and we’ve got this company called Google” In those days, you couldn’t Google “Google,” so we didn’t really know what it was. We checked with Michael Moritz at Sequoia and some of the people at Kleiner Perkins, and they said, “We don’t know where this company is going, but we think it could be groundbreaking,” so we ended up leasing the space to them. That was our first tech tenant. Over the years, we’ve done a little bit of technology. Uber came to us in Mission Bay, which surrounds the University of California at San Francisco’s life science campus. We’re delivering a million square feet of tech office for them this year. We haven’t diversified out of life science. We’ve kept that as a core in the markets we’re in. In Cambridge, Facebook came to us recently wanting part of a lab building, and we leased it to them. So, we’ve done some technology.

Then, the third flywheel we consider is what we called agtech. We think the world is really ripe for major disruption in farm to table, the whole way we bring food from the field to the table – not so much on the delivery side, but on the technology side. That’s how we’ve structured the company, but the core of the company is and will always be our life science core.

Liz O’Day (CEO & Founder, Olaris Therapeutics)

Siggelkow: Let’s move on to Olaris Therapeutics. Tell our listeners about your hunt for biomarkers.

Liz O’Day: First of all, thank you for having me. I’m pretty excited to share our story and what it’s like to be part of the Alexandria campus. Focusing on Olaris, I’m going to take a wild guess, Nicolaj, that you probably know somebody who’s had breast cancer. Is that true?

Siggelkow: Yes.

O’Day: Yes, nearly all of us do. One in eight women will get breast cancer, and while it’s still a scary diagnosis, we’re fortunate to live in an era where there are truly some transformative therapies. Unfortunately, we’re still not great at figuring out which treatment will work for an individual patient, and this can lead to some poorer outcomes. What Olaris does is use the metabolomics profiling platform and machine learning algorithms to uncover biomarkers that can predict which drug will actually work for a patient and, equally importantly, which drugs will not work for a patient, with the goal of optimizing treatment choices.

Siggelkow: How do you get the data? Is it a blood draw, and then from the blood, you get the necessary information?

O’Day: Exactly. There’s a lot of efforts in the precision medicine space springing up right now. Some people might be familiar with sequencing and the genomics approach, where someone will take a tumor biopsy, and they’ll measure the genes inside a particular patient’s cancer. We actually look at noninvasive biofluids, looking at blood or urine and its circulating metabolites.

These are the things that are actually being produced in you, so they provide a true functional readout of what’s happening: influences from your endogenous metabolome, microbiome byproducts, as well as drug breakdown products. It’s a fingerprint of what’s happening inside you or me. It helps explain why certain people are more susceptible to certain diseases and why, if two people are given the same drug, one might benefit from that drug while another one might not.

“We can use [biomarkers from past patients] to empower the future treatment of new patients.” – Dr. Liz O’Day

Siggelkow: As you pointed out, there are at least two main use cases for biomarkers: why are some people more susceptible to diseases than others, and why do some people react differently to the same drug? Where is Olaris’ focus right now?

O’Day: Yes. We’re definitely focused on the precision medicine space. As I said, there are truly great drugs out there that work for segments of patient populations. We have technology to figure out which patient will benefit from those drugs and which patient will not. The revolution that Olaris is trying to create is that as drugs come to market, they should have as part of their label what’s called an MOA, a mechanism of action, of how those drugs work, as well as a BOR, a biomarker of response, that says who these drugs work and do not work for. This is where our company is focused, but where we ultimately want to end up is going from precision medicine to preventative medicine, which talks about identifying risk factors and being able to detect disease at its earliest onset. You might be able to implement lifestyle changes to maybe even prevent the disease from ever progressing.

Siggelkow: I could see potential big data challenges. It’s not so difficult to draw my blood and to test it for all kinds of things, but it’s linking that to the outcomes, because you haven’t tested me for seven different types of cancer drugs. How do you get the link between the input data and the output data?

O’Day: Yes, this is really interesting. Another hat that I wear is co-chair for the World Economic Forum’s Biotechnology Council, which just recently established talking about the efforts around how we can use data to better treat future patients. I gave a talk that was called, “Biomarkers are the DeLorean for Personalized Medicine.” Much like how in Back to the Future, Marty McFly and Doc Brown used the DeLorean to go between past, present, and future, we can use biomarkers from past patients to help inform patients today. We’re already making efforts with some previous sequencing attempts.

If we make a concerted effort right now to start collecting patient samples, coupling that with strong electronic health records and well-curated clinical data, we can then inform future decisions. For this to work, we need access to retrospective data to uncover these biomarkers. For Olaris’ workflow, we partner with academics, payers, and governments all across the world to get access to patient samples from a previous study. We say, “We know in this study on breast cancer, certain women benefited from a particular drug. We also know certain women given that same drug were not helped by that treatment.” We take their blood, and we look at the difference that led to these two different outcomes. Then we can use it to empower the future treatment of new patients.

About Our Guests

Joel S. Marcus is the Executive Chairman and Founder of Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc., an urban office REIT uniquely focused on collaborative life science and technology campuses in AAA innovation cluster locations. Marcus co-founded Alexandria in 1994 as a garage startup with $19 million in Series A capital. As Chief Executive Officer from March 1997 to April 2018, he led its growth into an S&P 500 company with an approximately $18 billion total market capitalization and a total shareholder return of approximately 1,350% from the company’s IPO in May 1997 to December 31, 2017. Alexandria, which celebrated its 20th anniversary as an NYSE listed REIT in May 2017, is the only publicly traded pure-play office/laboratory REIT.

Prior to co-founding Alexandria, Mr. Marcus had an extensive legal career specializing in corporate finance and capital markets, venture capital, and mergers and acquisitions. During that time, he acquired an expertise in the biopharmaceutical industry and was one of the principal architects of the Kirin-Amgen EPO joint venture in 1984. He was also a practicing certified public accountant and tax manager with Arthur Young & Co., where he focused on the financing and taxation of REITs. Marcus earned his undergraduate and Juris Doctor degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Dr. Elizabeth O’Day is the CEO and Founder of Olaris Therapeutics, a precision medicine company that uses a pioneering metabolomics platform and proprietary machine learning algorithms to fundamentally improve how disease is diagnosed and treated. Dr. O’Day is also the co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Biotechnology and the Founder of Lizzard Fashion, an apparel company that uses fashion to promote science, and Proyecto Chispa (Project Spark), a 501c3 non-profit that recycles electronics and uses the resale of parts to build computer centers in orphanages throughout the world. Additionally, Dr. O’Day is an adjunct faculty at Boston College, teaching metabolism and entrepreneurship.

Dr. O’Day received her PhD from Harvard University, where she was a National Science Foundation fellow. She was one of 11 America scientists awarded a Winston Churchill fellowship and received a Master’s of Philosophy in Chemistry from the University of Cambridge. She has a Bachelor of Science degree from Boston College in Biochemistry, where she was awarded the Rev. Finnegan Award, the most prestigious award bestowed to an undergraduate, and nearly all of the nation’s top undergraduate research honors (Beckman scholar, Goldwater Scholar, Churchill Fellow, NSF Fellow, National Institute of Chemistry Excellence Award).

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