By Lisa Flavin, consultant in the life sciences and healthcare practices, Witt/Kieffer.
Pharma companies and academic medical centers (AMCs) have collaborated in various forms for decades. However, in the past few years, the number and extent of those partnerships have multiplied, driven by several forces. Most importantly, pharma and AMCs have shown that they need each other as never before, driven to collaborate by evershrinking academic research budgets and a dearth of viable therapeutics in the pipeline. Meanwhile, the rise in popularity of the “open innovation” model has led both pharmaceutical firms and academics to view partnering as a win-win opportunity.
The challenge for organizations that wish to partner will be to create a business model that protects both parties, is flexible enough to propel innovation through proof of concept, and addresses what kind of structural leadership will be most effective in running these combined ventures. Several high-profile partnerships have emerged over the past three to four years that are emblematic of the open innovation model, which is characterized by the idea that shared IP and the creation of a better business model through partnered innovation can trump internal, proprietary invention. Each of these examples has some form of shared IP, shared profits, and milestone arrangements. Where they differ is on control and leadership structure.
The broadest example is that of Pfizer’s Centers for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI), led by Anthony Coyle, VP and chief scientific officer. Pfizer has formed alliances with multiple AMCs in the hopes of creating an environment of open innovation, whereby the company shares its tools and development expertise with investigators and post docs housed at the country’s top academic research centers in an effort to spur development of biotherapeutics.
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has also embarked on a “Discovery Partnerships with Academia” initiative. This partnership, like that of Pfizer’s, is driven from the pharma side. It does, however, go to some lengths to give academic partners a measure of control. For instance, the agreed-upon terms state that GSK will give research partners a year’s notice if it chooses to end a collaboration and, if that happens, the academics would be free to continue with the project.
Sanofi has recently chosen an alternative path, putting C. Ronald Kahn, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief academic officer with Joslin Diabetes Center (a Harvard affiliate), in the lead of a joint project between Sanofi and Joslin. From all accounts, this has created added enthusiasm among Joslin researchers surrounding the possibilities for representation as well as commercialization of research.
Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) and the Duke Translational Medicine Institute have pushed the boundary of partnership even further. The two are looking beyond discovery or early-stage work and instead seek to foster a collaboration across all research and development stages.
Hybrid Leaders Needed
The decision as to who will lead and control the direction of these types of partnerships is arguably as critical as how they are structured. Pfizer’s CTI and BMS/Duke, among others, initiate their partnerships by forming joint steering committees with equal representation from both parties. These committees are charged with the selection and oversight of promising projects.
As the number and complexity of projects rise, so will the need for better and more direct oversight. These partnerships will increasingly need to be managed by individuals who understand both the academic and industry mindset and can leverage the best elements of both types of institutions. These leaders will also need the ability to anticipate conflicts that may arise between partners from the corporate and academic worlds.
Some of the concerns perceived by an academic partner may include the fear of a loss of control, the potential for conflict of interest, and compromised academic credibility. On the industry side, concerns include whether academic partners will have unrealistic expectations for financing, raise contractual issues, or fail to adhere to strict timelines and deliverables.
Leaders best-suited to address these issues will preferably have first-hand knowledge of both environments. Thus it is likely that a hybrid executive will lead the next generation of industry-academia collaborations. As the collaborations themselves increase in complexity, it will be critical to have such leaders at both the director and VP levels. While the success or failure of these partnerships will not be determined by a single driver, having the right leaders in place for a new and rapidly evolving R&D model will be pivotal.