By Benjamin Hoffman, Ph.D., senior director, corporate affairs, Onconova Therapeutics
Industry-academic collaborations are becoming more popular as pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies seek to harness the innovation and human capital within life sciences institutions. Both large and small companies alike engage in academic partnerships in order to expand their scientific programs in the discovery of new targets, molecules, biomarkers, and disease models. Much has been written on the structure of these partnerships — often a variety of grant mechanisms — but little attention has been paid to the successful management of collaborative relationships. The following are three suggestions for industry executives on how to align researchers and ensure maximum productivity.
1. Share Project Management Responsibilities. All successful partnerships require advanced identification of weaknesses, strengths, and potential synergies between the parties involved. Key industry skills include project management, budgeting, and quantification of return on investment in research. Industry programs have timelines and budgets established at the outset of each project. Most successful academics are familiar with timelines and budgets through the grant application process, and many are excellent project managers. The shared experience of project management can serve as a point of connection on all aspects of the collaboration. Identifying the primary project managers on both sides of the collaboration is a key initial step to a successful partnership. Executives should carefully consider the appointment of highly capable managers. These managers should share similar scientific values as their academic partners, have working knowledge on all technical aspects of the proposed project, and should possess strong interpersonal and communication skills.
2. Bridge The Documentation Gap. Project managers need to develop a shared understanding of the documentation process for the project with their academic counterparts. Although many academics document their research through note-taking, this record keeping is rarely to the standards required by industry. Thus, bridging the documentation gap is a second critical step in establishing a productive partnership. Since normal corroboration of notes may be difficult due to geographical factors, electronic lab notebooks should be employed by industry managers as a simple way to document experimental progress that also can be shared in real time.
3. Consider Incentives And Align Success Metrics. Next, it is critical to align success metrics between parties. Academia and industry reward systems are inherently divergent. Academics tend to focus on goal-oriented science, while industry tends to fixate on objective-oriented science. Success in academia is defined by advancing one’s specific expertise in a particular research area for which the tangible measures of achievement include journal publications, research grants, and speaking engagements. This contrasts the productivity metrics — linked to the advancement of clinical candidates, IND (investigational new drug) filings, and product approvals — employed by industry research executives. These opposing reward systems must be acknowledged and addressed in order to achieve successful industry-academic collaborations. The creation of new intellectual property should be a primary shared incentive. Intellectual property is beneficial to both the industrial sponsor and to the academic institution and inventors. The value of intellectual property should be communicated to academics through the industry sponsor or the university technology transfer office. Productivity in the collaboration should be measured by visibility of the science, not volume of research. Industry managers should consider publications, presentations, and NIH grant applications as clear markers of progress. Finally, visible reinvestment in the collaboration can be considered its own reward and a clear sign of progress toward a singular goal. Thus, flexible reinvestment triggers should be established at the outset of the engagement by industrial managers in order to motivate both sides to achieve maximum productivity from the collaboration.