Strategy Shift: How Alliance Practices—and Alliance Managers—Are Upleveling Their Skills

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Global Alliance Summit, Member Resources,

If you were to build or revamp an alliance practice in the biopharma industry, what would be your guiding principles, who would you hire, and how would the division fit into the company as a whole? The answers to these questions would probably look different every five years because priorities change as the business world evolves.

At the 2023 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, Adam Kornetsky, principal at Vantage Partners, moderated a panel discussion between two alliance practice heads who have recently grappled with these issues in the context of today’s industry landscape in the session “Designing, Building, and Scaling an Alliance Management Function.”

“Everyone has had another year working with their alliance management teams, seeing some different hiring trends and structuring models,” said Kornetsky, before noting the increasing number of platform, artificial intelligence (AI), and other digital health alliances. “There’s lots of partnerships out here in biopharma that we have to deal with.” 

Compatibility Check

Cindy Warren, vice president of business development for global neuroscience and the Japan region at The Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, began by comparing today’s complexities to those she faced a decade ago. She had recently come across a slide deck she put together 10 years before that delved into the intricacies of biotech–Big Pharma alliance relationships, the unique riddle those at the vanguard of alliance management were facing at the time. It almost seems so quaint now, with alliance managers handling multiparty pharma/biotech/academia initiatives and technology collaborations that call for almost radically different new ways of working.

“Now you start introducing platforms,” said Warren. “These are things that are completely different. A lot of times we don’t even use the same lexicon as some of these other companies that we’re looking at potentially partnering with.”

Warren equated pharma’s struggle to better understand technology companies to her dealings with a young couple who rents a house from her and her husband. The new tenants were confused when the landlords asked for a postdated check—they had only used Venmo for noncash monetary exchanges, to date. They ultimately located their checkbook and put a check in the mail, only there was one problem: they had signed the back of the check, not the front.

Warren’s point was that everybody has good intent and the same objectives, but “we’re really confused by the avenues with which we get there.”

Keeping a Watchful KPI on Your Business

Jarrod Midboe, director of clinical affairs and vendor alliance management at Upsher-Smith Laboratories, is facing a very different obstacle altogether. Upsher-Smith specializes in generic drugs, but very few blockbusters are coming off patent in the US.

“Competition has globalized, and it has necessitated change on a relationship level. The KPIs look different, the way you manage your partnerships looks different, the type of compounds that we’re seeing are different,” he explained. “If there wasn’t a defined path before, we’re finding defined paths now.”

Those KPIs are critical to how Midboe’s team guides his alliances and sells the portfolio’s value to his senior management, as well as partner company stakeholders. In short, Upsher-Smith has become significantly more data-driven in its operations and reporting. 

“I would push us forward with the KPIs, making sure they are front and center not only with your team and leadership internally but also with your partner. By doing that, you’re making it a priority to share that value proposition over and over again until almost exhaustion,” he said.

When you stay on top of your KPIs, you have a firm handle on what’s right and what’s missing in your alliance business. Armed with that knowledge, tough situations and conversations become significantly easier.

“It has given us good position to leverage when it comes to inflection points. And when we have to make decisions that are timely, they are highly impactful. As a result of that, some of the most challenging decisions on the surface really weren’t that challenging,” said Midboe.

Portfolio Strategy Eats the Management of Individual Alliances for Breakfast

Where once Upsher-Smith’s alliance practice was largely aligned with the CSO as a “development-centric function,” in Midboe’s words, it is now focused on “strategy delivery.” The alliance management team is being asked to realize value in initiatives that its business development teams have identified.

“What is it going to take to deliver that return on investment?” asked Midboe, before adding that alliance managers now follow KPIs throughout the drug development life cycle and demonstrate ROI at each phase.

Warren, too, has seen priorities shift from optimizing individual collaborations to a place where “it’s now around focusing on the strategy.” In her organization, alliance managers are integrated into each therapeutic area. They are charged with significant budgetary and personnel responsibilities, and they must understand how all activities fit into the big picture of her company’s alliance portfolio and overall company objectives.

“They not only understand what are the current pipeline and pipeline gaps,” she explained. “But they understand: What is the FTE usage? Who can I leverage? What are the budget constraints we have? What are potential projects that we have that can be potential outlicensing [agreement candidates]? It’s about the optimization of the portfolio and the business of the portfolio totality.”

Kornetsky noted that such a role requires “strategic thinkers,” and he asked if Warren found that it is “easier said than done” to find the individuals who can fulfill these duties, plus the other basic alliance management tasks. She replied that she looks internally for candidates all over her organization who “understand how functions interconnect with each other, and when decisions are made around a program how they impact different functions and different decisions that are going to have to be made downstream.” She added that it usually entails hiring someone with a “wide breadth of experience” who is “typically more senior.”

“You don’t have to know how to wire the machine, but you at last have to know what circuits to pull. That’s really around, Do you know who the influencers are? Do you know who the decision makers are? Can you go toe-to-toe with the most senior people in our organization? Can you really get down and have a conversation to mobilize people in the working groups?” she said.

Recordings of “Designing, Building, and Scaling an Alliance Management Function” and other great 2023 ASAP Global Alliance Summit sessions are available in the Summit app now!