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BioPharma Conference Panel “Sparks” Engaging Discussion About Innovation

Posted By Jon Lavietes, Tuesday, September 15, 2020

As alliance managers, it is sometimes easy to get bogged down in the operational and administrative parts of collaborations—structuring governance, disseminating minutes of meetings, administering health checks, and the like. However, we never want to stray from the larger goals of unlocking partnerships’ intended value and producing game-changing outcomes. The last session of day 1 of the first-ever virtual ASAP BioPharma Conference explored an area where alliance management can impact companies in powerful ways and raise the practice’s profile within the organization: driving innovation, a topic “I haven’t really seen us dive into very deep at ASAP [historically],” said Christine Carberry, CSAP, principal at Carberry Consulting.

Carberry moderated the panel “Where’s the Spark? How Alliance Leaders Can Create Innovation,” which included two representatives of small biopharma outfits as well as one from an industry blueblood:

  • Yaminah Leggett-Wells, senior director of project management at Viela Bio
  • Chandra Ramanathan, PhD, global head of pharma R&D open innovation at Bayer US
  • Liz Gazda, CEO of Embr Labs

Carberry kicked off the session by asking panelists how they create a culture of innovation and integrate that culture into the alliance management function at their companies. Gazda noted that this isn’t very hard to do at a company as small as hers— Embr Labs counts 19 employees on its payroll.

For Small Companies, Innovation Is Survival

“Innovation is survival. We are a venture-backed company, and if we don’t innovate, we die. We can’t attract investment,” she proclaimed in a steady voice that belied the gravity of the reality her company faces—and embraces. 

Gazda noted that Embr Labs goes out of its way to monitor external trends and forces that could potentially shape an alliance’s activities objectives. The company holds regular interactive discussions with allies to dissect these learnings and those from the partner’s observations of the external world. 

“That exchange of tacit information often sparks innovation along the way. The alliance becomes an evolutionary and progressive process instead of a static one,” she said.

These external observations often open up new opportunities for the company. Gazda cited an example where her team learned that a condition called dysautonomia, which affects the nervous system, plagues 40 percent of recovering COVID-19 patients. Armed with research that shows her company’s technology effectively addresses this disease, Gazda convinced scientists investigating the relationship between coronavirus and dysautonomia to include Embr Labs’s product in a clinical trial. 

Carberry called this an example of the importance of “looking beyond the day-to-day, looking beyond the contract, looking beyond your company [to gauge] what’s going on in your environment.”

Illustrating Tangible and Intangible Measures of ROI, Innovation 

Carberry then pivoted to the subject of how to measure return on investment (ROI) of collaborations. Ramanathan noted that there are multiple ways to communicate this value. The simplest metric is the more than 10 partnership-driven assets in Bayer’s pipeline.

“That talks about the ROI of what we do in a much more tangible way,” he said.

But there are other intangible manifestations of alliances’ contributions to innovation. For example, Ramanathan spoke of a past situation where Bayer and another partner combined complementary biology and chemistry expertise in order to get a molecule to clinic, something neither company could have done solo. He also talked about how Bayer influences clinical trials and medical-device initiatives, and urged listeners to think about other forms of value aside from the product innovations at the heart of alliance initiatives. 

“What is going to benefit the patients?” he said.

Blending Skill Sets to Crystallize Unseen Innovation

Carberry then picked the panelists’ brains on how to create the time and space to think beyond the immediate deliverables spelled out in the contract and ruminate deeply on innovation. Leggett-Wells credited the structure of her alliance team for enabling her to keep a regular pulse on the broader context of the collaborations for which she is responsible. She is in constant contact with product development teams from both organizations who can’t help but be buried in the day-to-day responsibilities of partnerships. 

“I have my pulse on what they’re doing and how they are interacting with various alliance partners. Through that communication, you are able to find areas where perhaps the skill sets of the two organizations can blend nicely and foster some of those innovative ideas,” she explained. “They don’t see the innovation but you as an alliance manager are able to see it because you are stepping back from that discussion.”

Leggett-Wells added that networking with other professionals in the industry, such as “what we are doing today [at the ASAP BioPharma Conference],” also provides this wider perspective.

“For us, we can never underestimate the importance of communication,” she said.

Delicate Dances, Safety Nets Free Allies to Introduce New Ideas

At that point, ASAP president and CEO Michael Leonetti took over to handle the Q&A portion of the session. First question from conference attendees: when do you introduce a new idea or approach to an alliance? Carberry spoke of the “delicate dance” alliance managers have to do at times to introduce a new concept or direction to a partner. She recommended giving a meeting an innocuous label like a “brainstorming session” and creating an environment where nobody feels they have to commit to something that isn’t in the contract.

“It’s almost like you sometimes have to put a safety net around those new-idea discussions, so that people feel free to have those conversations,” she said.

“One should not think about this after the problem becomes very obvious,” counseled Ramanathan. Bayer had a partnership that was struggling to translate its science four years into the collaboration. The partner was narrowly fixated on the science itself, but Bayer wanted to broaden the focus to the patient. The organizations both felt that a two-year extension was necessary, but it took some back-and-forth to agree on a new objective for the alliance. 

“We explained that the work we were doing necessitates focusing on different aspect of the science,” he recounted. “Finally, we agreed that, for the expansion, we would focus on a slightly different area where there’s a huge unmet need.”

It’s Never Too Early to Add an Alliance Manager to a Critical Early-Stage Initiative

Another audience member asked what the right time would be to add the alliance manager role in an early-stage innovative organization? Leggett-Wells said it depends on the complexity of the program and the importance of an alliance to the organization.

“There are times where we rely on the subject matter experts to progress activities and we don’t have a formal alliance manager assigned, but we do have some in early development where we do have an alliance manager assigned because we think that early-stage alliance can be important to the future of the organization,” she said.

Gazda said she knows from experience the value alliance managers can bring if they are involved early in contract negotiations and at the start of collaborations. The best ones ask the right questions and they understand the tenor and intent of those discussions several years into the partnership.

“I’d bring an alliance manager into the company as soon as I can afford one, and I would have that strategic alliance manager in every single business development kickoff meeting,” she said.

Conference attendees can discover the numerous other insights shared by the panelists, as all completed livestreamed 2020 ASAP BioPharma Conference sessions have been archived in the event’s portal. Also, registrants have access to six other prerecorded sessions from pharmaceutical industry experts on demand. The conference continues with more livestreamed sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday. Keep checking this blog for more updates!

Tags:  Alliance Leaders  alliance management  Bayer US  biopharma Yaminah Leggett-Wells  business development  Chandra Ramanathan  Christine Carberry  contract negotiations  driving innovation  Embr Labs  Liz Gazda  partnerships  Viela Bio 

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