It's not much more than a fuzzy feeling, but the reopening of the equity market for biotech companies is beginning to produce discernible signs of change in their attitudes toward partnering deals with pharmaceutical companies.

A brief survey of the partnering scene reveals that the apocalyptic desperation of early 1995 is gone, replaced with a more measured analysis of the pros and cons of potential deals. It also suggests that the relative paucity of early-stage money has put emergent companies more at the front of the deal-shopping line, hoping to position themselves as the source of new ideas.

That cannot be altogether surprising, given that biotech companies have raised $4.7 billion from the public trough in the last three quarters. By comparison, early-stage money has been more scarce, totaling just $207 million over the same period.

In addition, the interest in accessing small company technology among big pharma, medium-sized European companies, and first- and even second-tier biotech companies has tilted the balance of power more in favor of the sellers of technology than in the first half of 1995.

Inherent benefits

That has not, however, led to a wholesale return to the arrogance of the 1991/92 boom, when many biotech companies assumed that they could go it alone. Companies in 1996 have realized the inherent benefits of partnering, apart from the cash often provided by such deals.

Josef Bossart, senior director of business and marketing development at Rhone-Poulenc Rorer's RPR Gencell (Collegeville, Penn.), sees a subtle shift on the part of biotech companies. "I would say the biotech companies still want to partner because they need the validation," he said. "But perhaps there's less interest in having too large a commitment - having some of their options reduced or becoming too associated with a particular company, and that may have to do with the equity markets."