ASH: The Celgene show, this time through partners

The American Society of Hematology conference has in many years been the Celgene show, as the company presented data on its $4 billion-a-year multiple myeloma drug, Revlimid. This year is no differentCelgene is presenting more than 160 data sets at the meeting, which started Saturday in San Franciscothough now a focus is sharpening on the company's many partnerships among smaller biotech companies.

Celgene's partnering strategy, which started to take shape in 2008 and has accelerated in recent years, is starting to bear fruit; many of the most-watched stocks out of ASH fall under its umbrella, from Agios Pharmaceuticals to Acceleron Pharma.

Lab technician with medical samples
Matt Lincoln | Cultura Science | Getty Images

Agios presented data Sunday on its drug AG-221 in acute myeloid leukemia that Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's Dr. Eytan Stein said has transformed the lives of his patients in the early stage study.

Acceleron reported data from a midstage trial showing benefits in the blood disorder beta-thalassemia.

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Another Celgene partner, Epizyme, is presenting updated data Monday on its leukemia drug. They're among more than 30 external collaborators Celgene has struck deals with in the last six years.

"They're on the cutting edge of novel technologies that are evolving to treat cancer better and better," RBC Capital Markets analyst Michael Yee said in a telephone interview. "They're getting their foot in the door early and aligning with these partners, helping fund these programs and getting them off the ground."

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Many of the deals Celgene has struck have been with tiny companies in the very early stages of testing their drugs. The partnership with Agios, for example, started in 2010 when Agios was still a private company and hadn't yet begun testing its medicines in humans.

Agios has since gone public, announced plans to start a late-stage study of its most advanced drug next year and amassed a market value of more than $3 billion.

"Celgene's been more aggressive about getting into some of these earlier-stage venture capital-backed companies that are really pursuing cutting-edge science," Cowen analyst Eric Schmidt said in an interview. "Two to three years ago, pre this whole IPO window opening up, there just weren't that many companies looking around at these early stage start-ups."

And as so many of the partners have been in the very early stages of drug testing, Celgene's stock hasn't benefited yet from most of its collaborations, analysts say, noting that may soon start to change.

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"A lot of these are going to start to read out and a couple are going to look very interesting," RBC's Yee said.

Celgene's web of partnerships stemmed from efforts to tap into disruptive technologieswithout hampering the smaller companies' ability to innovate, said Tom Daniel, Celgene's head of research and early development.

"Because a number of us had built or led small companies, we had the attitude of being a different kind of partner," Daniel said in an interview. "It was not just to be sort of the Big Pharma judge and jury, but to really be collaboratively engaged with the small company."

Nick Leschly, chief executive of Celgene partner Bluebird Bio, put it another way: "Celgene gets it."

"Their opening line in negotiations is: 'What's important to you?'" Leschly said in an interview at the ASH conference. Bluebird is presenting data at the meeting Monday, though on a different program than the one partnered with Celgene. "They're very keen and focused on making sure incentives are aligned."

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In many cases, that's involved Celgene taking an equity stake in its partnersa strategy that's begun to take on value of its own as many have gone public and their market values have grown.

Celgene is the largest shareholder of Agios, with a 15 percent stake. It also owns large portions of partners Acceleron, Epizyme and OncoMed. It's not an investment strategy, Daniel said, though in cases like Agios, it hasn't hurt; Agios' stock is up more than 340 percent year to date.

Owning stock gives Celgene "a voice at the table," Daniel said, "basically to be an owner, to be participating in the board activities and following the progress of the company at the most senior level."

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Some partnerships have also come with exclusive options for Celgene to acquire the smaller companies, such as its April 2014 deal with Forma Therapeutics and its February 2014 deal with Abide Therapeutics.

As the list of Celgene's collaborations has grown, though, the challenge may become proving that each has the potential to make a significant impact, RBC's Yee said.

"When it first started coming out, some of these partnerships were being viewed as extremely prestigious," Yee said. "Now some pundits might say they seem to be throwing money everywhere, so each incremental one loses a little bit of prestige."

Yee noted, though, that recent collaborations like an April licensing deal for a Crohn's disease drug have excited investors. That medicine is in later stages of testing than many others on which Celgene's formed partnerships.

As the strategy provides access to new technologies, it's also yielded an "outside-in cultural transformation" for the $90 billion company, Daniel said.

"I think we're valuably impacted by small company can-do attitudeshungry entrepreneurs determined to prove that they've got something of great, great value and importance," he said. "Not only are we strong by virtue of the network, but we're also stronger inside because we're connected to it."