Summit Session Reveals How to Turn a Spinoff into an Alliance Excellence Award Winner

Alliance Excellence Award ,

Posted By Jon Lavietes, Tuesday, April 27, 2021


It’s a solid bet that a collaboration between both winners of the 2020 ASAP Alliance Excellence Award in the Alliance Program Excellence category will teem with alliance best practices and overall program success. It’s an even better bet that the collaboration will put an innovative twist on the tools and principles espoused in The ASAP Handbook of Alliance Management.

In 2017, the aforementioned 2020 award winners, Merck KGaA and Cancer Research UK, plunked down a substantial financial investment and several compounds in order to create a new biotech company, iOnctura, that would specialize in finding cures for hard-to-treat tumors. The new spinout was added to Cancer Research UK’s diverse alliance portfolio. Four years later, the iOnctura–Cancer Research UK alliance took home a 2021 ASAP Alliance Excellence Award this morning in the Individual Alliance Excellence category. It has brought two assets to clinical stages that take a different tack on fighting these nearly untreatable cancers: rather than treating the tumor itself, these compounds target the nexus of the tumor, stroma, and immune system.

Senior Support More Than Skin Deep

But more than that, this alliance has provided lessons for customizing the tools and practices to fit the unique needs of an alliance, and illustrated how parties can be incentivized to put their best thinking and resources into a project when they have skin in the game.

“The shared ownership in the company gave, on the one end, Cancer Research UK the opportunity to stay very close to the projects that they were interested in. And on the other side, iOnctura truly benefited from all of the expertise of Cancer Research UK and also tapped into their network,” said Lars van der Veen, PhD, COO of iOnctura, in the on-demand 2021 ASAP Global Alliance Summit presentation “How to Turn a Spinoff into a High-performance Alliance.”

The team and leadership structure exemplified this deep involvement. iOnctura invited the senior leader at Cancer Research UK who was recruited to be the alliance champion to chair the alliance’s Scientific Advisory Board. The presence of this high-ranking executive reminded all stakeholders of the collaboration’s importance to his organization and enabled him to be on top of partnership affairs at all times. Moving down the chain of command, the organizations came up with a novel alliance team leadership model; they installed professionals with deep science backgrounds as alliance leads, which effectively bridged the larger scientific and executive management teams. This arrangement was so successful that Cancer Research UK has ported it to other alliances in its portfolio.

Time to Flex: Alliance Flashes Different Skill Sets at Different Phases

As the partnership progressed, the two entities continued to innovate best practices. For one, they implemented an unusually flexible governance structure with more ad hoc meetings than your average partnership. The Joint Steering Committee (JSC) met less frequently, but the alliance team took measures to make sure that its meetings were laser focused on the most critical issues facing the alliance. As the targets moved through the drug development life cycle, different stakeholders got involved in alliance affairs at different times, depending on the stage. Where many alliances have a predetermined management structure, iOnctura and Cancer Research UK found that personnel had to be rotated in and out according to their specialized expertise.

“We recognized and allowed for different skill sets to be predominant at different phases,” said Beatrice Lana, CA-AM, PhD, strategic alliance executive at Cancer Research UK. “Typically, in an alliance like this one, the scientific expertise and management expertise are key at the early stage, and maybe the commercial knowledge comes at the later stage. There are alternating phases which require more or less support and involvement from one team or another—the scientific team or management team. In addition, different stakeholders might be more or less involved at different stages of the alliance.”

Alliance Manager Autonomy, Information at the Ready Help Pace the Partnership

A common challenge encountered by alliances between startups and larger organizations is the disparity in pace, and the Cancer Research UK–iOnctura alliance was no different; the latter wanted fast and prompt responses from senior management, but the former had to follow strict internal policies and fixed approval processes, so the two parties reached a compromise.

“I had to work with my senior management to reprioritize tasks internally and create more agile internal processes for document approval and signature. Sometimes this required asking senior management to reallocate and revisit responsibilities and authority over decisions in order to allow me to act faster. On the other side, iOnctura really made an effort to always be available to provide additional information and support as needed,” explained Lana, who added that this system was particularly beneficial when dealing with crucial technical and financial matters.

In the end, the iOnctura–Cancer Research UK alliance is a story of how perfect can be the enemy of good and fast enough. The two parties determined that it was less important to get the perfect business plan and more critical to stay flexible and move quickly. They found that it was better to leverage differences rather than eliminate them, and to adjust the alliance’s structure to fit its evolving needs.

Summit registrants have only a few days left to hear the full story of this award-winning collaboration. The event portal closes this Friday, so access this session now before it’s gone!