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Pharma Alliance Leaders Making Adjustments to a Virtual, Stay-at-Home World

Posted By Michael J. Burke, Tuesday, April 28, 2020

During the COVID-19 crisis, it’s been heartening to see how many pharmaceutical companies—including a representative number of ASAP members—have stepped up their efforts to work toward vaccines and medicines to treat the virus, including partnering with one another and with government to speed up the processes of research and development, all while trying to keep regular manufacturing and supply operations going so that lifesaving drugs continue to reach patients who need them.

But as is true for all of us, the coronavirus has thrown significant obstacles in pharma companies’ path as well: Almost everyone is working from home, supply chains have been interrupted, sales reps can’t see physicians, and some companies in the biopharma ecosystem are already feeling the pain of financial distress.

So how are pharma alliance management groups coping with COVID? How are their teams communicating internally, reaching out to partners, and moving projects forward in the face of these hurdles?

Different Times, Different Strategies

That was the subject of an April 21 ASAP Netcast Webinar, “Alliance Management Practices in a Virtual World for Pharmaceutical Executives.” The four panelists were among the crème de la crème of big-pharma alliance leaders: Harm-Jan Borgeld, CSAP, PhD, MBA, vice president and head of alliance management for Merck Healthcare KGaA; Mark Coflin, CSAP, MBA, vice president and head of global alliance management at Takeda; David Thompson, CSAP, chief alliance officer at Eli Lilly and Company; and Steve Twait, CSAP, vice president of alliance and integration management at AstraZeneca. The webinar was moderated by Michael Leonetti, CSAP, president and CEO of ASAP.

As Leonetti noted at the outset, “We are in very different times, and different times require different strategies.” Accordingly, the four alliance leaders shared their strategies and thinking in a number of areas, from keeping their teams humming along internally to communicating with partners to monitoring supply chain and manufacturing issues.

Thompson observed that we’re currently living through a “worldwide inflection point,” a phenomenon not seen “since probably the 1930s and ’40s, where the entire world is experiencing something at the same time.” Twait concurred: “This is my 20th year in the alliance management space and I can say I have never seen anything quite like this before. COVID-19 is providing us with challenges I don’t think any of us ever anticipated.”

Buddies, Backups, and Break Times

Borgeld said one of the first things he and his colleagues at Merck in Germany did was to look at what would happen if alliance managers could not fulfill their duties, for whatever reason. So they created “a buddy system, where every alliance manager has a backup—even me. A member of the leadership team is my backup in case I would not be able to function. Also the partners have been informed of this backup system, so they know there’s always someone to contact.”

In this new world, alliance executives and their teams have had to figure out how to hold internal meetings virtually—and how often and for how long—how to carry out alliance governance, and how to interface with partners when everyone is working remotely and none of these activities can be done in person. Some of what they’ve done has changed over time already—going from two meetings a week down to one, for example, having shorter meetings, or making the meetings last only 45 minutes instead of an hour, both to give people a much-needed break that they might have formerly used to walk down the hall and “grab a cup of coffee,” as Twait put it, but also to allow for some “unstructured chat” time, in Thompson’s words.

In addition, half-day or full-day meetings across multiple time zones around the world have in many cases been condensed down to one- or two-hour videoconferences, which allows greater focus and prevents “virtual meeting burnout” while being “respectful of time zones,” as Coflin phrased it—especially important when partners and/or team members may be spread out across the globe.

There’s good and bad in this virtual situation, according to Thompson. “The upside of course is there’s a time savings, the downside is you’re not getting that human interaction,” he said. “You have to be more cognizant of how you’re going to structure your agendas for the meeting to get the most out of it.” Another positive that Twait has observed is that videoconferences today give us a window into each other’s lives—including children, pets, decorations in home offices or other rooms—and these help to build “interpersonal trust” in a way that wasn’t necessarily done pre-COVID.

Borgeld emphasized that while some of the same problems and issues arose before the virus took hold, now it’s even more critical to anticipate and address them, whether it’s coworkers who are trying to multitask and get work done while managing children at home, or partners who may be experiencing financial distress. In the latter case, he recommended, “Seek the dialogue early—it’s not important that you open the books. Focus on the alliance itself: what do we need to do? Come early, discuss it, and try to find a solution.”

Problems, Solutions, and Opportunities

Solutions can be hard to come by, especially where coronavirus is concerned, but more than one of the panelists mentioned the resourceful, flexible cooperation and collaboration between various biopharma organizations, leading to more partnerships and, hopefully, effective treatments and vaccines down the road.

“One of the things that’s very encouraging is the number of partnerships that are springing up all over,” said Twait. “Not just between pharma and pharma—we’re all working together, and many of those interests are around COVID. I’m seeing pharma to biotech, pharma to academia, pharma and others to nonprofits—partnerships of all types.”

Coflin backed up that assessment: “In this current environment where we’re looking for solutions on an urgent basis for humanity, there’s a lot of external innovations and partnerships that are rapidly forming, amongst companies, together with regulatory authorities, NIH, you name it. Everybody’s pulling together to find some solutions.”

Twait emphasized viewing the crisis as a chance to potentially change how things are being done for the better. “I try to look for the opportunities that are coming out of this, and it feels like now is the perfect time,” he explained. “What COVID is allowing us to do is to ask the question: Can we move faster, and are there ways to accelerate? It’s a great opportunity to use this burning platform and the urgency that we have to really challenge inefficiencies and change some of those internal and external processes.”

Shining Examples

Thompson advised looking at alliances with an eye toward contractual obligations, as well as the risks that may be triggered if those are left unfulfilled. “I would really recommend to everybody,” he said, “to do a thorough read of each contract: to go back through and with the lens of the business, human, and legal uncertainties and risks, foresee what’s in the contract, identify and begin to engage with the partners in a discussion now. To me that has been one of the most helpful exercises we’ve done, and also has allowed us to engage in productive discussions, because we’re identifying early the things that the contracts are pointing to. Regardless if you’re in or out of our industry, anybody who’s got a contractual relationship with anybody, that is worth doing.”

Coflin also mentioned being aware of potential supply issues, which can be dicey at a time like this. “The supply continuity is critical to the patient,” he acknowledged. “These are lifesaving medicines in some cases. So we look very carefully at the supply chain, and have since the very beginning of COVID-19, looking not only at the current inventory but also…where it’s sourced from—in some cases China, [or] Italy, and others where we’ve run into a very challenging situation with logistics. The amount of flights is less than it used to be, including cargo, so it is something that requires constant evaluation of risk and constant discussion with our partners.”

Asked for final thoughts, Borgeld gave this exhortation: “Focus on your team. Make [it] so that they can shine in this difficult environment. It’s an environment where there are challenges, and that has to be recognized. Focus on the team, make sure that the team feels that [its] needs are addressed.”

After the four panelists had answered a number of questions, both from Leonetti and the large audience sitting in on the webinar, Leonetti thanked them for sharing their insights and experiences. “You are a shining example of our community, our willingness to collaborate with each other, and our willingness to help share best practices that ultimately make us better partners and better future partners,” he said. “I can’t thank you all enough for bringing this forward and helping to keep our ASAP community alive during these virtual times.”

Tags:  academia  Alliance Leaders  alliance manager  AstraZeneca  best practices  biotech  COVID-19  David Thompson  Eli Lilly and Company  Harm-Jan Borgeld  manufacturing  Mark Coflin  Merck Healthcare KGaA  partnerships  Pharma  Pharmaceutical Executives  Steve Twait  supply chain  Takeda  virtual 

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