We Can Be Heroes: Alliance Managers and the C-Suite

Posted By: Michael Burke BioPharma Conference, Member Resources,

Is alliance management a good path to the C-suite?

That was the question that opened up this morning keynote “fireside chat” between Christine Carberry, principal of Carberry Consulting and a longtime ASAP standard bearer, and Prakash Raman, president and CEO of Ribon Therapeutics. The presentation was titled “Bridging Alliance Management Experience to the CEO Role.”

The answer from Raman, whose career spans a PhD in medicinal chemistry, plus work in project management, business development, and even a stint in venture capital before coming on board to head up the biotech Ribon earlier this year, was that it certainly could be—but in the process of fleshing that answer out he and Carberry uncovered a number of skills, qualities, and capabilities that the best alliance managers need to have, whether they’re on their way to the corner office or not.

No Dispute: They Deserve Better

Raman formerly worked at Novartis, among other companies, and fondly recalled his feelings about alliance management from his time in business development.

“Having a really calm, professional alliance manager by your side is really critical when you’re in BD,” he said. “Alliance managers are really the unsung heroes. When it’s going well, no one knows. When there’s a dispute…? They deserve more recognition.”

And the right amount of recognition might just propel the best alliance managers upward, perhaps all the way to the C-suite. Carberry herself was a COO after a career in alliance management, and recalled speaking to a room full of BD folks about what alliance management actually does.

Someone stopped her after her talk and said, “That was amazing! I always wondered what happened after the deal got signed!”

Take Some Peanut Butter on the Journey…and Chocolate

Indeed, the “unsung” part of the alliance manager’s hero’s journey is a commonplace, as is some of the work that they do—often behind the scenes, unseen and unremarked upon (unless something goes wrong). But Raman has a recognition of the place of alliance management in the firmament of biopharma as it exists today.

"No company can innovate on its own,” he said. “It’s the peanut butter and jelly, or peanut butter and chocolate, figuring out how to get [companies] together. You’re trying to force two organizations to work together with competing priorities, and often asymmetric size.”

All that takes place against the backdrop of very prevalent technical failure of alliances in biopharma, plus “markets that are hurting, where it’s tough to be a small biotech and tough to recruit top talent,” Raman said. That places a premium on having a long-term strategy, and developing and accelerating programs by bringing in partners to “go broader earlier,” he added. “You can’t just build it as long as you want.”

And given that “scientists love their programs, alliance managers have to be the most objective people in the room.” Their stock in trade is strategy, structure, people, processes, and communication. Oh—and the best of them are “really good psychotherapists.”

From Unsung and Undersold to Brighter Days Ahead

The question of alliance management visibility—especially to the C-suite—came up once again. Alliance managers are making things happen—decisions, governance meetings, milestone payments, having the right discussions—but they tend to be “underappreciated,” Raman said.

“Unfortunately alliance managers often undersell themselves a lot,” he continued. “They do their work very quietly and don’t pound on the table. So how do you get the right people to notice what you’ve done? You have to advocate.”

Nonetheless, Raman had an optimistic view of alliance management in biopharma.

“The future is really bright for alliance management,” he said. You look at the pipelines and the proportions of it that are from external programs—alliances are going to be a mainstay for larger organizations. There’s going to be a dearth of individuals who can do these roles, and organizations need to support that development.”

Given the trends toward AI drug discovery, digital health, and personalized and precision medicine—or as Raman put it, “really cool science”—the alliance manager’s role becomes even more central to external innovation.

“It’s translating the twinkle in the scientist’s eye into something more tangible,” Raman concluded.

As tangible as the corner office? Time will tell.