Keeping Up with the Changes

Posted By: Michael Burke BioPharma Conference, Member Resources,

One of the benefits of drawing the biopharma alliance community together is to learn from the wisdom and experience of alliance leaders who have given enough time to the profession to allow them to reflect on what they’ve seen: what remains the same, what’s changed, and what’s coming up next on their radar.

That was the case with the opening panel discussion in Boston yesterday at the 2023 ASAP BioPharma Conference. “Driving Organizational Value in a Changing Landscape: Maximizing Essential Individual and Team Alliance Skills” was moderated by Chris Black, CA-AM, head of corporate alliance management and integration at Merck & Co., with panelists Markus Kropf, vice president and head of global alliance management at Merck KGaA, and Arne Wörn, PhD, global head of alliance management at Novartis. (Cindy Warren, vice president of business development, neuroscience, at Johnson & Johnson Innovative Medicine, was scheduled to participate as well but could not attend due to a last minute-conflict.)

After the jokes were over about the two different and distinct Mercks (Kropf suggested that the German Merck KGaA is not “the other Merck” as dubbed by ASAP president and CEO Michael Leonetti, CSAP, but “the original Merck”) and Wörn introduced himself as “yet another German, I apologize for that,” Black got things going with shows of hands which revealed a good mix in the full ballroom between pharma and biotech employees, domestic and non-US folks, and those with less than three years of alliance management experience versus those with more than 10.

Those like Black and the panelists on the more experienced side tend to “know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two,” as Black said, quoting a US television commercial. This certainly gives them some perspective on the changing biopharma partnering landscape.

Connecting Diverse Dots

Wörn said that after nearly 20 years at Novartis, “What has not changed is that alliances are an instrumental part of our business.” What has changed is that they’ve gotten more complex. These changes range from new and different types of alliances to more and different stakeholders and new requirements for alliance managers. Deal structures have shifted, with “more option-like agreements,” he said, while at the same time there are more interdependencies between collaborations and assets, compelling alliance managers to need to “connect the dots.”

Biopharma firms are also collaborating with different types of partners such as digital and other tech companies; Novartis itself has significant relationships with Microsoft and Amazon. Meanwhile increasing M&A activity can be a challenge for alliance professionals as they inherit agreements and have to learn to “live with them and make the collaboration work,” Wörn said.

Kropf too noted the “huge diversity of kinds of alliances we’re dealing with”—around 160 different ones at Merck KGaA, a “broad spectrum” from academic research collaborations to big-pharma commercial alliances, including Chinese, European, and other partners in the mix. “Difference and complexity have increased, but that’s also what makes the job interesting,” he said.

Kropf tries to staff his global team of eight alliance managers, each of whom has a different portfolio of roughly 20 alliances, with people having “complementary skills and capabilities” who can work together, drive value for the organization, and help each other by sharing information and experiences. As he said, “Did anybody ever come across this question before?” is something that pops up with some frequency in their communications.

The diversity, complexity, and sheer volume of collaborations means that “you can’t treat all alliances the same,” Kropf said, citing the 80/20 rule where perhaps 80 percent of alliances require basic “maintenance” while the other 20 percent need higher-touch, hands-on management. Either way, he said, “You can’t just not do anything—there are contractual obligations. So where do you spend your [time] every day to maximize value?”

A great question, which he answered this way: by aligning his team around identifying “key alliances.” “There’s no one size fits all,” he said.

Forest Rangers

Wörn echoed that point, saying that as “portfolio managers,” alliance managers need to focus on three things: prioritization, simplification, and a strategic approach or mindset. Otherwise, they’ll be overwhelmed, and they “don’t see the forest for the trees.”

Black and the panelists agreed that one way to combat the rapid effects of change is to constantly educate team members, alliance stakeholders, and the organization as a whole, including:

  • To enable others rather than trying to do it all themselves
  • To emphasize the “teaching aspect and the influencing skill set” (Wörn)
  • To “find a way to train the trainers and influence others” (Wörn)
  • To change the mindset to see that “increasing complexity is a nice problem to have” (Black, channeling the absent Cindy Warren) and that “change is a good thing, and not a threat” (Kropf)

“Change in the environment drives change for individuals as well,” said Wörn. This creates pressures on teams and organizations and can cause some attrition. When that happens, Black likes to revisit job descriptions to see if they need to be revised and rethought.

Counting Out the Fruit Salad

"How do you value alliance management and how do you know when it’s successful?” was a question posed in the Q&A at the end of the discussion, drawing answers ranging from achievement of objectives (Black) to alliances causing senior leadership “no trouble” and leading to satisfied stakeholders. “If they’re happy, we’re doing a good job,” said Kropf. “If not, we have to change something.”

Of course it’s not always clear exactly what needs to change, or whether you’re measuring the right things when so many are important—and when some (like “dollars and euros”) are not necessarily within the “circle of influence of alliance managers,” as Kropf said. “You can count apples and you can count oranges, but you cannot count fruit salad,” he summarized.

Fruit-related KPIs aside, Wörn preached that the assembled alliance managers need to focus on being “strategic leaders and chief influencing officers”—a fruitful idea in its own right that definitely received audience approval.