Where Hope IS the Strategy: Customizing Alliance Management to Fight Deadly Disease
Updated: Friday, September 27, 2019
Andre Turenne began his Wednesday keynote address at the 2019 ASAP BioPharma Conference , held Sept. 23–25 in Boston, by reminding everyone why biopharma companies form partnerships in the first place: to more effectively find and create new medicines and treatments that will improve patient health outcomes—and in some cases, with the fervent hope of one day preventing or arresting the progress of currently untreatable diseases.
Turenne, since July 2018 the president and CEO of Voyager Therapeutics, started off his keynote presentation, “Fit for Purpose Alliance Management: Why Customization Matters,” by telling the story of Kyle Bryant, an inspirational and determined young man who was diagnosed at age 17 with Friedreich’s ataxia (FA). The diagnosis of FA, a progressive and eventually fatal disease, means that Bryant will gradually lose motor function and speech. But he has been making the most of his life in the meantime, among other things founding and directing a cross-US bike ride called rideATAXIA—billed as “the world’s toughest bike race”—to benefit the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance (FARA), and with his friend Sean Baumstark cohosting a podcast, Two Disabled Dudes.
Bryant is also the subject of an award-winning 2015 documentary, The Ataxian, which shows how he participated in and ultimately completed the grueling cross-country bike ride. Turenne showed the audience the trailer for the film, in which Bryant said of the debilitating disease, “There’s a way to fight it. And there’s always hope.”
Turenne and his company are trying to translate that inspiring attitude into a forward-thinking strategic vision. Through their commercial collaboration with Neurocrine Biosciences, Voyager Therapeutics is working on treatments in the areas of Friedreich’s ataxia and Parkinson’s disease (PD). In addition, the Voyager pipeline includes a partnership with Abbvie around treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and related conditions.
Around 6000 people in the US have FA, which is being targeted by gene replacement therapy. About a million Americans have PD; they lose the ability to produce dopamine, which controls motor function, so the goal is to mitigate that loss to help restore motor activity.
Especially for a small company like Voyager, “collaboration is of the utmost importance,” Turenne acknowledged. “Who we choose to work with and how…has a huge bearing on what we do. And no two collaborations are alike, so we need a customized approach to alliance management.”
Turenne may be the rare example of a CEO who came up through the ranks of alliance management and business development, but as ASAP president and CEO Mike Leonetti said, he’s “living proof” that it is possible. Or as Turenne explained, “The phenotype of a CEO is changing as the industry is changing. If you talk with VCs, there is no fixed stereotype of what a CEO should be.”
Perhaps Turenne’s AM/BD experience also contributes to his keen interest in partnering with companies that “punch above their weight in the execution of this function.”
In Turenne’s thinking, the key factors when considering forming an alliance are:
- Each company’s size, strategy, and areas of focus
- The partnered program’s relative importance to each company
- The other company’s (your potential partner’s) alliance management experience and organizational setup
- The evolution of any of the above factors for either company over time
As Turenne put it, “We’re only as good as the way we can work together.” And while he said he doesn’t like to talk about companies with less alliance management expertise as the “weak link,” the success or failure of a given alliance often boils down to the level of the least experienced player. How to bridge that gap to “customize and calibrate the relationship” then becomes the big challenge.
Add to that a burgeoning biopharma industry that is far from static, and change must be assumed—and anticipated and planned for in advance. The original setup of the alliance, however well structured, may no longer apply given changing market conditions, turnover in either organization, or companies’ shifting strategies, so alliance managers must be agile enough to pivot and adapt to these altered states.
Among the trends Turenne has seen that have significant implications for biopharma alliance management are:
- Well-capitalized biotechs seeking to collaborate with smaller companies
- Big pharma companies trying to “act smaller” and be more nimble and flexible
- The massive movement of talent across the industry, which means a greater cross-fertilization of alliance management approaches throughout biopharma
After a dozen years at Genzyme—where he established the alliance management function—and later its eventual acquirer Sanofi, Turenne came on board at Voyager in 2018 already convinced of the importance of alliance management and the need to tailor and customize its application to the partnerships at hand. And having been in senior positions in companies large and small, he has some thoughts on how big and small companies can partner effectively.
One key is to understand and acknowledge each company’s experience with partnering and how each one works. Ideally then each company can stretch toward the other and meet in the middle in terms of establishing their joint partnering capability.
“Any effort in a humble way [for a bigger company] to share experience with the smaller partner can have a big impact,” Turenne explained. The larger partner can try to flex to meet the needs of the smaller partner so the gap between them is lessened. At a conference whose theme was “Bridging the Many Divides,” Turenne’s words certainly resonated.
When he looks into the future, Turenne hopes that the partnership with Neurocrine around FA and PD will still be active in five years. But will they succeed in helping patients with these serious conditions? Turenne feels that Voyager’s continuing efforts to enhance and customize its alliance management capabilities will “improve our chances of making a big impact for patients.”