The Story of Vir: Alliance Success in a Blur

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Alliance Excellence Award, Member Resources,

Who says sophisticated alliance programs aren’t in the reach of smaller biotechs? And who says every biopharma therapy collaboration has to take close to a decade or longer to bear fruit? 

It is not uncommon to hear biopharma organizations pay lip service to applying a “collaborative mindset” to their business, and even those that truly desire a “collaborative culture” often find that actualizing one is easier said than done. Vir Biotechnology, which was founded in 2016, cultivated a collaborative DNA—and fast! The company created its alliance management practice in 2019, and just a year after its launch, the alliance leadership team forged a partnership with GSK to bring a Covid-19 antibody to market—in the midst of a pandemic, of course. Since that time, the team has also adeptly managed transformative changes that come with substantial growth in revenue and headcount. Vir’s revenues grew substantially from 2018 to 2021, and in that time, its relatively small alliance leadership team of just six people developed a portfolio of more than 50 alliances, collaborations, and licenses. 

Vir’s success, both in terms of achieving outsized corporate goals and instilling partnering principles throughout the company, earned it a 2023 ASAP Alliance Excellence Award in the Alliance Program Excellence category. 

Portfolio Growth Is Infectious

To some degree, every company’s success comes down to the proper blend of people, processes, and technology. Vir’s diverse, experienced alliance team brings a broad range of scientific and business experience, which enables the company to work successfully with any type of partner or stakeholder. The technology piece also partly contributed to its culture of collaboration. In order to help ensure that a majority of alliance managers’ time was spent building and optimizing a broad range of partnerships, the team strategically repurposed several technology solutions, which it then integrated with other uses besides alliance management. For instance, the team adapted off-the-shelf project management software to track contract milestones and collaboration inflection points, as well as automate timely notifications within the company. They also integrated visualization software to create easy-to-assimilate dashboards for the executive management team and internal decision-making bodies.

As the complexity and scope of the company’s alliances grew, this enabled the alliance leadership team to stay focused on the human side of alliances—the relationships, creativity, and problem-solving that are the foundation of strong collaborations. Today, the breadth of its alliance portfolio spans nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, public agencies, and academic partners, in addition to traditional biotech and pharma partners, all of which are committed to tackling infectious diseases.

 “Vir was built on an ecosystem of acquisitions, licenses, and collaborations,”  said Jennifer Watt, senior vice president and head of global alliances.

In addition to its successful Covid-19 partnership, Vir’s pipeline includes therapies for hepatitis B, hepatitis D, influenza, and HIV. The company has forged partnerships with several industry peers and competitors and received funding from government agencies and nonprofit organizations to support its development.

Going Vir.AL: Fully Baked-In Alliance Strategy Helps Portfolio Flourish  

In parallel to working on such a broad range of alliances, the team—which is known internally as “Vir.AL”—also had to focus on maintaining its course toward achieving the company’s biggest imperatives at a time of fast-paced organizational expansion. As the company’s workforce and revenues grew, the alliance leadership and executive teams worked closely to align internal and alliance governance structures and guide all stakeholders, accordingly. Vir.AL also spearheaded an internal research committee consisting of senior leaders who oversee various preclinical and exploratory joint projects. 

To ensure that alliances are “baked into,” not “bolted onto,” corporate strategy, as the saying goes, an alliance manager is part of every program team across research, development, and commercial initiatives. Vir also incorporates alliance management’s perspective at the start of any deal negotiations rather than much later in the process or not at all. Vir.AL also partners closely with business development and the legal team to negotiate agreements related to academic research and clinical trials, as well as related ancillary clauses and amendments. 

Small Leadership Team, Outsized Impact

By being strategic in its planning and execution, astutely leveraging technology, and making sure staff and governance structures foster partnership values, Vir’s relatively small alliance leadership team has rapidly built a diverse global ecosystem of partners that help make an outsized impact on the company’s mission.

“We take a holistic view of what it means to be a partner of Vir and use alliance best practices to ensure the ecosystem is supporting vibrant and resilient collaborations,” said Watt. “And we always drive toward Vir’s mission—a world without infectious disease—because our goal is to help improve the lives of patients everywhere.”