Mashup or Culture Clash? When Biopharma and IT Meet Up in Digital Health Alliances
Posted By Jon Lavietes, Monday, August 3, 2020
It’s generally accepted that the alliance management profession is entrenched in IT and biopharma more deeply than in other industries. In these vertical markets, no business can sustain significant growth without developing an alliance practice and a deep portfolio of partnerships. No one company could develop a full stack of hardware, software, and cloud services on its own and still keep pace with the blisteringly fast tech sector, nor could a single pharmaceutical entity complete the entire drug life cycle solo for an entire portfolio of drug candidates.
Yet for many years these industries have operated largely in separate spheres based partly upon vastly different alliance principles. This is starting to change with the advent of digital health, an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of initiatives that utilize digital technologies to advance and streamline patient care in the form of preventive treatment, hyperpersonalized medicine, more accurate drug discovery, and a more efficient patient-provider relationship, among other applications. (See “Digital Health at the Crossroads,” Strategic Alliance Quarterly, Q4 2019, for more on this rapidly expanding area.)
Suddenly, cross-industry alliances are popping up everywhere, from GE Healthcare’s Edison intelligence platform (see “It’s the Data—and a Lot More,” Strategic Alliance Quarterly, Q1 2020), to the alliance between AstraZeneca and Flex spinoff BrightInsight, to the myriad data-driven pharma collaborations hard at work today. Now, Big Pharma, biotechs, and academic medical researchers are increasingly mingling with tech-industry startups, midsize companies, and Global 1,000 enterprises, necessitating the coalescence of these two alliance cultures.
Mind the Gaps
In their on-demand 2020 ASAP Global Alliance Summit session “The Alliance Management Mashup: Bridging a Digital Divide,” the proprietors of alliance management consultancy The Rhythm of Business laid out a common alliance framework that would help digital health partners on both sides better understand each other and function together more successfully.
Or course, to close gaps, you must first identify them. According to Jeff Shuman, CSAP, PhD, principal at The Rhythm of Business, the most glaring of these disparities is the timeline in which these industries innovate and bring solutions to market. In tech, companies develop products iteratively through agile processes in order to bring offerings to market in the tightest of windows—the “next big thing” can become yesterday’s news in a hurry. By contrast, it can take up to a decade to commercialize a therapy thanks to a stricter regulatory climate and pharma’s more methodical drug-development processes, although Shuman noted that today’s exceptional circumstances have led to some COVID-19 research being conducted in an “accelerated manner” using iterative techniques.
“‘Move fast and break things.’ That may help promote innovation, but it’s not a good principle when people’s health and lives are at stake,” said Shuman, referencing the famous operating philosophy Mark Zuckerberg used to take Facebook to stratospheric heights. Not a great recipe for pharma, to say the least.
Tech and biopharma differ in many other ways as well. Generally speaking, tech is solution-centric while the pharma market revolves around products. Tech solutions are code-driven, while pharmaceutical offerings involve complex manufacturing processes that are “highly customized for each drug and drug formulation, often requiring a dedicated cold chain to get from factory to patient,” said Shuman.
Technology products are peddled in large part through channel sales and collaborative selling efforts, while pharmaceutical firms spend lots of resources comarketing and copromoting joint products. Tech companies—particularly software vendors—can sell and distribute products through distributors, resellers, and system integrators, or by “white labeling” their products via OEM agreements. Patients buy drugs from pharmacies, while pharma companies often rely on combination therapies. Where new subscription-based business models are predicated on the “land, adopt, expand, and renew” approach, pharma’s product-based life cycle management is usually expressed in the form of “new indications and new formulations.”
Disparities Extend to IT, Pharma Alliance Practices
Alliance portfolios, partnerships, and alliance manager roles look much different in these industries as well. Pharma alliances are negotiated individually and often underpinned by detailed long-term contracts with multiple subagreements, while tech partnerships can often be grouped along a particular area of focus and covered by blanket contract terms that apply to an entire partner program. Today, technology companies partner on platforms around common APIs, while pharma companies license individual assets. The pharmaceutical industry banks on partnerships at all stages of the drug-development life cycle, from research to commercialization, while tech usually partners when it is time to go to market.
Just about everything a tech alliance manager does is in the name of driving revenue—in fact, alliance practices are expected to generate new streams. Although revenue generation is a major imperative to pharma alliance managers, it is secondary to risk mitigation and maximizing the value of joint assets; pharma managers spend more time monitoring contract compliance—determining when amendments or entirely new agreements are necessary—than their tech counterparts do.
Tech alliance managers must earn the commitment of partner resources, while pharma contracts usually spell out resource obligations. Instead, biopharma alliance managers focus their energy on giving higher-ups “all the data they need to make smart decisions,” according to Shuman. Given the distributed nature of tech alliance management, the alliance division must actively engage field sales to get salespeople to actively shop an alliance solution. In biopharma, the field “doesn’t have choice,” in Shuman’s words.
How do you actually reconcile these differences? Jan Twombly, CSAP, The Rhythm of Business’s president, illustrated the answer with an anonymous case study where a Big Pharma corporation and a technology outfit leveraged the latter’s IoT platform to codevelop apps and medical devices and collect real-world evidence (RWE) from patients that would ultimately enable highly personalized care. Their business model rested on software subscriptions paid for by the biopharma entity to the tech company, which is “different from what biopharma companies are used to,” said Twombly. A collaborative framework was established in several key areas—the two organizations settled on joint development, cocommercialization, and revenue sharing arrangements. However, the pharma company was tasked with deciding what it wanted in the device, what the device would do, and what outcomes it would produce, while the tech company determined how to take the platform itself to market.
On a broader level, the companies needed to align on the intended outcomes, regulatory pathway, decision-making processes, and go-to-market messaging. This turns out to be easier said than done. Pharmaceutical companies are used to applying software to internal processes but not to product development, nor are they well versed in working with tech companies in a true vendor-relationship capacity. On a practical level, IT and pharma alliance managers have drastically different titles and functions.
“It may be challenging to engage in stakeholder mapping and getting the right people in the meetings,” said Twombly.
Extensive regulatory-, safety-, and quality-related processes are new to tech, which forced the IoT vendor in this case to rely on the pharmaceutical company’s expertise.
“[Pharmaceutical companies] should be in the lead when it comes to determining what the regulatory pathways are going to be,” said Twombly.
Lighter and Leaner Governance, Stronger Champions, and More Listening
Both entities needed to reimagine the governance process and the role of their joint steering committee (JSC).
“Governance-through-committee doesn’t work all that well in a lean tech company,” said Twombly, before noting that this presented an opportunity for the biopharma alliance managers to try on a lighter, “more agile” governance where teams met more frequently but for less time.
Governance is especially important in ensuring transparent decision making; it may require especially rigorous stakeholder management and a different decision hierarchy from what either side might be used to. In particular, the parties must devise a governance structure that helps partners align on evidence standards so that the tech company can produce data that will “pave that [regulatory] pathway” to meet the biopharma entity’s standard.
Senior leadership champions are especially important in getting stakeholders to understand the value of digital health partnerships and engage in the new modus operandi required for their execution. To foster collaboration, Twombly spoke of “listening to understand,” a process that involves creating a “common language with shared meaning” that helps leverage each party’s strengths.
Follow the North Star—and Respect Culture’s Hearty Appetite
Twombly urged partners to boil down their discussion of desired outcomes to three points: 1) Align on a North Star—“know what it is that you are trying to produce, know what the outcome is that you want from this partnership, and keep everybody focused on achieving it”; 2) Agree to milestones and metrics; and 3) Make status against plans visible to all.
Twombly also reminded the audience of the old saying that “culture eats strategy for lunch.” To remedy cultural differences, she recommended that tech alliance pros assume the best of intentions on the part of their biopharma counterparts and speak up and provide alternatives when something won’t work in their environment. On the flip side, pharma companies need to explain their world, with visual aids showing how their organizations work, wherever possible. As with all alliances, everyone must celebrate successes and learn from mistakes.
Twombly closed with a series of “tips and traps.” For the former, she outlined the following:
- Take time to understand how each partner innovates, goes to market, and what partnership looks like to them.
- Understand your counterpart’s focus, job, and core responsibilities.
- Use the alliance management foundation to decide how to bridge differences—the toolsets provided by ASAP “give you a common baseline which you can work from.”
The three traps to avoid?
- Allowing stakeholders to think that a digital health partnership is like all the others—“you’re really going to have to adapt new behaviors and ways of looking at things” because the status quo will not suffice, warned Twombly.
- Make sure each side appreciates and leverages what the other brings to the alliance.
- Don’t fail to champion your partner and partnership.
Above all, Twombly exhorted companies on both sides to recognize the high stakes and the game-changing potential of these collaborations.
“The promise for digital health is significant for both technology and biopharma companies, never mind the patients,” she said. “Allow these new therapies, applications, and ways of developing drugs to thrive.”
If you registered for the 2020 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, don’t miss out on the bounty of career- and partnership-boosting tips and tricks from some of the profession’s most senior practitioners. The three days of live Summit sessions, plus more than a dozen prerecorded presentations, are available to you on demand until Aug. 18. Log on to the Summit portal soon to access them before they’re gone!