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Why Are We Here? Partnering to Make Good Things Happen

Posted By Michael J. Burke, Thursday, September 17, 2020

Melinda Richter’s journey began very humbly, in a small wooden house with no running water in northern Canada. Growing up in that harsh environment with her parents and seven siblings wasn’t easy, especially in winter. But she was determined, she says: “I was going to change my story.”

That story and its implications rippled through Richter’s day three keynote address at the 2020 ASAP BioPharma Conference, “The Power of Partnership: Driving Innovation for Patients.” And for Richter, now global head of JLABS for Johnson & Johnson Innovation, another key phrase to ponder might be “the power of why.”

A subsequent chapter in her story found Richter living in Beijing and working for a tech company. She was making pretty good money and, as she said, “I thought I had the world by the tail.” Then she was literally “bit by a bug” while walking outdoors and wound up very ill in a Beijing hospital room, where the doctors sadly told her there was nothing they could do for her and she should call her family and say goodbye.

“That changed my life,” she said. She decided that if she lived, she would go to work in healthcare. Somehow she did survive, quit her corporate job, “sold everything,” and went to San Francisco. She was not a scientist but a businessperson, and she thought she might be able to apply some of her tech industry experience to healthcare by identifying problems and coming up with creative solutions.

Using Tech Savvy to Change Life Sciences

This is all in a day’s work for tech, but in the life sciences it’s a little more complicated, given that “before you even turn the lights on” you have to have infrastructure, make investments in capital equipment, follow the scientific process, understand the regulations, and then resign yourself to the fact that it may take 8 to 12 years or more to get a drug to market. If you’re an investor, Richter asked, where would you rather put your money—on the next Instagram, or an oncology drug development program?

Yet Richter persisted, raising $6 million initially to open her first facility and dedicating 50 percent of its common space to help incubate and innovate fresh ideas and new science. A few years and about a billion dollars in deals later she found she needed to expand, and secured a meeting with Johnson & Johnson representatives in San Diego where she pitched the wild notion that “if we put our respective strengths together, we could maybe change the scale in life sciences.”

Maybe not so wild, because the result was JLABS, which has grown from its first facility in San Diego to encompass a number of locations in North America, and recently in Europe and China as well. All of these, Richter stressed, are collaborations—public-private partnerships with government entities such as BARDA (the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority), as well as partnerships with startups, pharma companies, and others.

Getting the Best Solutions to the People

One of the BARDA collaborations is focused on trying to sniff out the next coronavirus-type pandemic. Called “Blue Knight,” its purpose is to “anticipate the next COVID-19 challenge, take the best solutions, and then amplify them out to our global citizens,” Richter explained.

So far, according to Richter, JLABS has done nearly $40 billion worth of deals, amounting to some 150-plus collaborations with 673 companies in its network. What’s more, the organization is 30 percent women-led—vs. 1 percent in the industry—and 29 percent minority-led—vs. 8 percent industry-wide.

Companies apply to JLABS for space, investment connections and opportunities, and coaching that will help them get to the next level and help solve our greatest healthcare problems—aiming at not only more and better treatments, but also better quality of and access to healthcare.

Or as Richter put it, JLABS seeks “to accelerate solutions to patients and make them cheaper, so everyone can have access and everyone can afford it.” Currently this includes working on solutions to the COVID-19 crisis—“If there’s a bigger cause I don’t know about it,” Richter acknowledged.

Why Are You Here? To Walk Through Walls

To do this work, of course, it helps to be passionate about what you do—or as Richter said, to “walk through walls to get it done.” In explaining her mindset, she admitted that when things don’t go well, even today she returns in her memory to that hospital room in Beijing where she wondered whether she was even going to live to see another day. “Then I dust myself off, pick myself up, and get back to work.”

Richter nudged the virtual audience to ask themselves: “Why are you here? Why do you do what you do?” This would seem to have great resonance with our biopharma contingent, who regularly remind themselves and others that the purpose of all their painstaking alliance management effort is ultimately to bring about better outcomes for patients who desperately need that help—thus, Richter said, “fighting for something that’s bigger than you.”

In alliances and partnerships, too, it’s useful to return to these “existential” questions: “What is the purpose that is bigger than ourselves? What are we trying to accomplish together? What can we all do to get over this hump?”

A Powerful Proposition

Not that it isn’t frustrating at times. Richter noted that while she and others started as early as two years ago trying to anticipate something like COVID-19, “we were still too late. We haven’t done this well enough.”

Moreover, organizations doing this important work also need to take a hard look at their own composition—specifically their gender and ethnic diversity. “Our leadership teams don’t look enough like our population,” she said, adding that she had to keep revisiting her own organization’s record, challenging her own assumptions, and striving for improvement. “Which ethnic minorities are absent?” she asked. “It’s something we all need to do better. What are we missing?” This is not just about fulfilling arbitrary quotas, she stressed, but about organizations better understanding the needs of the communities and populations they serve.

Finally, in answer to a question during the Q&A portion of the presentation, Richter acknowledged that JLABS—a series of collaborations that now stretches across the globe—began with one conversation, one meeting, one pitch, and one agreement based on trust, honesty, and transparency. It was important for J&J to understand the risks of Richter’s proposal, and for her to answer their concerns, but also for her to be honest that “things can go wrong.”

And as in any alliance, there has to be the faith and trust on both sides that, as Richter articulated it, “We’re going to figure it out and solve things in the moment. That’s a very powerful proposition.”

Tags:  alliance  BARDA collaborations  collaborations  J&J Innovation  JLABS  life sciences  Melinda Richter  partnerships  strategic  trust 

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GE Healthcare CDO Outlines Vision of Precision Health Using AI

Posted By Jon Lavietes, Wednesday, September 16, 2020

In the third and final session of the second day of the 2020 ASAP BioPharma Conference, medtech took center stage. Derek Danois, chief data officer at GE Healthcare, outlined his company’s nascent efforts to transform basic healthcare delivery models in his presentation “Artificial Intelligence in Clinical Care Delivery and the Opportunities to Accelerate Your Development and Commercial Strategy.”

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the principal tools at the heart of a larger movement in the healthcare industry around “precision health.” The concept is simple: Rather than prescribing medications based on a set of generic symptoms, doctors will integrate lots of relevant data, such as genetic profile, family history, and environmental factors, in designing a custom treatment plan. Precision health will be built on precision diagnostics, therapeutics, and monitoring (e.g., wearables).

Data: the Source Code for AI and the Key to Early Detection

With the overarching mission of precision health explained, Danois showed the audience a video that told a story set in the future where a woman detects a lump on her breast, sends the self-exam directly to her doctor right from her bathroom, gets scheduled for a consult immediately, and is put through a battery of tests at the healthcare facility while doctors and technicians analyze the resultant data. The verdict: they caught a malignancy early enough to expect a full recovery. 

The video is meant to inspire, said Danois, but it also conveys GE Healthcare’s vision for the future.

“What can we do to intervene now in helping to spot the early signs of diseases? How can we intervene in a little bit more of an effective manner? How do we help patients feel less fearful and engage more with their clinicians?” he said. “We’ve got to start thinking even earlier. We have to start thinking about the data that is being collected around the world that allows us to think about this journey. Data truly is the source code for AI.”

AI, Danois explained, has to be educated, taught, and trained over a long period of time in order to be effective. For example, an AI program must be exposed to a trusted radiologist’s annotation of a tumor on an x-ray over and over again before it can learn to recognize a similar tumor on its own and become a “true companion source” and a reliable second opinion for doctors. 

Leaping Regulatory and Economic Hurdles to Make Leaps in Precision Health

The technological piece is one challenge. There are also regulatory, economic, and administrative obstacles to contend with. Healthcare providers are generating loads of valuable data, but this information is fragmented around the world, making it difficult to get the right data in the hands of clinicians at the right time. Moreover, hospitals still aren’t convinced that the cost-benefit ratio is in their favor yet. They still haven’t seen enough evidence of positive long-term outcomes, plus there’s a question as to whether health insurance plans will reimburse for AI-based treatments. Even if a health provider is sold on a new concept, it is difficult to deploy it in a highly regulated industry like healthcare.

Still, despite the hurdles that still need to be cleared, nobody disputes that the payoff is going to be transformative, to say the least, down the road in terms of fluid and effective healthcare delivery. Danois likened where we are today in digital health to the first iPhone more than a decade ago. Back then, there were only a few apps, but everyone saw tremendous possibilities. Now, we perform many of our day-to-day functions on our phones. Healthcare can get to the same place, in Danois’s view.

“It starts with understanding and thinking about the various data content that exists in these organizations. How can those be made available for, not just research but practical product development, AI development, collaboration with industry partners,” he said. “Thinking about how those can be turned into AI applications that can be deployed in the right workflows, what challenges exist from a security and privacy perspective? And then thinking about how those get injected into intelligent applications that can be deployed either on the devices in hospitals right now, or they can be deployed in a hybrid model using cloud infrastructure.”

Ultimately, said Danois, we need to get to a point where doctors don’t even think about the technology behind AI-powered apps and devices, where all it takes is a simple Internet connection in order to take advantage of them.

Alliances, of course, are a must if we are going to get there. GE Healthcare realized early that it couldn’t do it alone, despite the great investment it made into AI technology, software engineering, and data science. (For more details about GE Healthcare’s Edison AI platform, see “It’s the Data—and a Lot More,” Strategic Alliance Quarterly, Q1 2020.)

“We needed to open our technology. We needed to create an ecosystem. We needed to create the landing platforms for other partners to work with us. We’ve been encouraging others to think about doing similar things,” he said. “When you can have ethically compliant ecosystems, when you can think about what each party brings to that challenge and help solve it, and that there’s a known entity at the end of that workflow stream, either in the provider or the patient, that will allow us to take advantage of these tools and technologies and leverage these delivery models, we know that we can achieve amazing precision outcomes.”

The FDA’s Position on AI in Healthcare Devices

With that, Danois fielded a few questions from the audience. The first dealt with privacy and security concerns that come with AI apps and devices. Danois explained that these apps are like any digital health technology in that they are designed “in a thoughtful way” to do a task.   

“These get deployed into an already-existing, highly regulated environment for medical devices, whether it is in the US, in Europe, or for most other countries around the world. There’s some regulatory process where these devices need to be approved from a technology point of view, both physical and digital hardware. Those AI applications will exist in those environments,” he said, before adding that the FDA’s position is that if you incorporate AI into an existing piece of hardware, you must treat the new product as an entirely new device. You can create a separate AI app instead, but whatever you produce must be delivered in a “in cybersecurity-hardened and technically thoughtful way.”

Danois was also asked if the partnering language and mindset is different in these partnerships, given the disparities between tech and pharma corporate and alliance cultures. He responded first by making an important distinction between pure technology ventures that are focused solely on creating AI apps and services and medtech initiatives which use diagnostic tools and technologies to deliver AI-powered services. The latter already undergo a rigorous three- to five-year approval process—Danois cited pet scanners as an example. His larger point was that many collaborations are already comfortable with the longer-term regulatory and alliance cycles.

Danois had plenty more to share during his presentation. ASAP BioPharma Conference registrants can review “Artificial Intelligence in Clinical Care Delivery and the Opportunities to Accelerate Your Development and Commercial Strategy” anytime this week and beyond to benefit from his knowledge and expertise. They can also enjoy a dozen other prerecorded on-demand presentations, as well as the rest of this week’s completed livestreamed sessions.

Keep checking this blog for updates from the conference throughout this week!

Tags:  AI  AI-based treatments  alliance culture  Artificial Intelligence  Clinical Care Delivery  Derek Danois  diagnostics  FDA  GE Healthcare  health  partnering  partnerships  pharma  strategy  tech  therapeutics 

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Driving Through Spaghetti: Navigating the “Chaos” of Biopharma/Digital Partnerships

Posted By Michael J. Burke, Wednesday, September 16, 2020

There are many things biopharma alliance professionals do well, and many areas where they shine. Partnerships between life sciences companies and digital organizations, however, while on the rise, remain the new frontier for alliance management. And to give alliance professionals their due, it’s often their organizations that are caught flatfooted by the demands and challenges that lie along the biopharma/digital divide. In fact, greater involvement by alliance groups might help operationalize and execute on these partnerships such that they fulfill their purposes and create more of their intended value.

That’s one of the assessments provided by Stu Kliman, CA-AM, and Ben Siddall, both partners in Vantage Partners, in their presentation, “Enhancing Partnerships Between Life Sciences and Digital Organizations,” on day two of the 2020 ASAP BioPharma Conference. (Vantage Partners is a platinum sponsor of the conference.)

In introducing Kliman and Siddall, ASAP president and CEO Michael Leonetti, CSAP, noted that this is “a topic that we’ve been talking about for a number of years at ASAP.” The two presenters agreed, with Siddall adding that what has changed in the three or four years since he and Kliman began facilitating such partnerships and doing presentations on the subject is the sheer proliferation of these alliances—to the extent that they can no longer fit on one slide anymore.

The trend is part of “an increasingly complex ecosystem, with biopharma at the center,” according to Siddall. The question, he said, is “How do we take advantage of all these relationships and manage [them] in a coherent way?” It can be done, he added, but due to the number of relationships involved, and the breadth and longevity of those relationships, “it’s a struggle.”

Changing Mental Models

Kliman mentioned that when biopharma people hear the word “partnering,” they have “a mental model for what that means,” which may be “somewhat narrow and [something that] happens linearly—the classic drug development and commercialization process.” But digital partnerships are a different animal. As Kliman put it, they tend to be “more invasive and more involved for alliance management than is typically the case.”

Kliman gave a couple examples of such partnerships, such as Concerto AI and BMS, and GE and Roche, before noting that there are often so many internal and external players and stakeholders involved, and so many different activities across the alliance life cycle, it can be challenging to coordinate all those functions and activities. “All that looks easy on a slide, but it’s hard to make all the pieces fit,” said Siddall.

And whose job is it, anyway? Both Kliman and Siddall, in different ways, made the case for alliance management groups to perform this difficult task.

Even in a “traditional” biopharma alliance, there is great complexity and a number of functions involved, and alliance managers tend to move among the different functions as needed to communicate and coordinate activities and ensure alignment, in addition to working closely with their opposite numbers at the partner company. With a biopharma/digital partnership, however, the number of functions increases and may include things like AI, tech suppliers, virtual trials (often international in nature), and more.

The Spaghetti Slide

Displaying a slide showing a veritable spider web of lines drawn between all these different functions, Siddall noted, “You see how complex the map looks. You’ve got this spaghetti.” Throughout the presentation, this was referred back to as “the spaghetti slide.”

Notwithstanding this complexity, said Kliman, “We believe the alliance management group is very well positioned to own these activities” and be the “change management driver” in digital partnerships. Other functions are simply not prepared to do it, he said.

Yet significant organizational challenges remain. Recent Vantage research shows that 74 percent of biopharma respondents said their organization has an explicit digital strategy—but 52 percent say that internal stakeholders are not clear about how to effectively engage their key digital relationships. What’s more, only 15 percent of respondents said their company has clear and operationalized approaches to manage digital relationships differently from more transactional vendor relationships.

“So how do you do this well?” Siddall asked. He cited what he called “three critical enablers.” To be successful, he said, organizations must:

  • Align decisions with strategy (“What’s the purpose? Why are we doing this?”)
  • Embed a cross-functional operating model to speed execution
  • Build the skills to enable agile collaboration

“Everybody’s Doing It”—but Not Everybody’s Doing It Well

Many companies simply ask, “Which partner does X?” he said, and then “get a list of big names.” This is the wrong approach. Rather, they should start with their overall strategy and ask, “What are we trying to do?” And, given the number of activities and functions involved, they also have to ask themselves, “How do we actively manage all that chaos, and make it strategic?”

In fact, Siddall said that alliance professionals not only need to manage the chaos, but they might need to create some as well. In so doing, they’ll need to avoid what has sometimes been the biopharma response to digital organizations’ ways: “That’s not how we do it here.”

Kliman acknowledged that the challenges of the biopharma/digital divide can make for a “differentially uncomfortable situation.” “As alliance managers, we like control,” he said. But there are far more digital partnerships now than just a couple years ago, and the number is expected to continue to rise. So get used to it—the future is here.

“The size and diversity of digital portfolios has grown,” Kliman said. “Folks have woken up to the implications for their organization. We see organizations bellying up to the [digital] bar.” Or as Siddall said, “Everybody’s doing it now.”

And although some of the skills needed for digital partnerships may be different, Siddall said it requires a “mindset shift” rather than reflecting a “skill set conflict.”

We Need a Navigator

Finally, Siddall’s pitch for greater involvement by alliance management in digital partnerships highlighted alliance managers’ role as “navigators” of different relationships, especially their ability to help partners navigate biopharma organizations and surface differences.

Kliman said he wouldn’t argue what alliance managers should or should not do, but the fact remains that companies need to have an approach to managing these partnerships—and who will be accountable to drive alignment around executing the operating model?

“It makes good sense with a portfolio of digital relationships that alliance management has a role to play,” he said.

Check back in this space for more coverage of the 2020 ASAP BioPharma Conference, and remember that the online showcase on Vimeo gives you all the livestream sessions in real time—and later, once they’re archived, in case you missed one—as well as all the on-demand content, sponsors’ messages, and more!

Tags:  agile  alignment  alliance management  alliances  Ben Siddall  collaboration  cross-functional  Digital  internal stakeholders  Life Sciences  Partnerships  portfolio  relationships  speed execution  strategy  Stu Kliman  Vantage Partners 

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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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Mashup or Culture Clash? When Biopharma and IT Meet Up in Digital Health Alliances

Posted By Jon Lavietes, Monday, August 3, 2020

It’s generally accepted that the alliance management profession is entrenched in IT and biopharma more deeply than in other industries. In these vertical markets, no business can sustain significant growth without developing an alliance practice and a deep portfolio of partnerships. No one company could develop a full stack of hardware, software, and cloud services on its own and still keep pace with the blisteringly fast tech sector, nor could a single pharmaceutical entity complete the entire drug life cycle solo for an entire portfolio of drug candidates.

Yet for many years these industries have operated largely in separate spheres based partly upon vastly different alliance principles. This is starting to change with the advent of digital health, an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of initiatives that utilize digital technologies to advance and streamline patient care in the form of preventive treatment, hyperpersonalized medicine, more accurate drug discovery, and a more efficient patient-provider relationship, among other applications. (See “Digital Health at the Crossroads,” Strategic Alliance Quarterly, Q4 2019, for more on this rapidly expanding area.)

Suddenly, cross-industry alliances are popping up everywhere, from GE Healthcare’s Edison intelligence platform (see “It’s the Data—and a Lot More,” Strategic Alliance Quarterly, Q1 2020), to the alliance between AstraZeneca and Flex spinoff BrightInsight, to the myriad data-driven pharma collaborations hard at work today. Now, Big Pharma, biotechs, and academic medical researchers are increasingly mingling with tech-industry startups, midsize companies, and Global 1,000 enterprises, necessitating the coalescence of these two alliance cultures.

Mind the Gaps

In their on-demand 2020 ASAP Global Alliance Summit session “The Alliance Management Mashup: Bridging a Digital Divide,” the proprietors of alliance management consultancy The Rhythm of Business laid out a common alliance framework that would help digital health partners on both sides better understand each other and function together more successfully.

Or course, to close gaps, you must first identify them. According to Jeff Shuman, CSAP, PhD, principal at The Rhythm of Business, the most glaring of these disparities is the timeline in which these industries innovate and bring solutions to market. In tech, companies develop products iteratively through agile processes in order to bring offerings to market in the tightest of windows—the “next big thing” can become yesterday’s news in a hurry. By contrast, it can take up to a decade to commercialize a therapy thanks to a stricter regulatory climate and pharma’s more methodical drug-development processes, although Shuman noted that today’s exceptional circumstances have led to some COVID-19 research being conducted in an “accelerated manner” using iterative techniques.

“‘Move fast and break things.’ That may help promote innovation, but it’s not a good principle when people’s health and lives are at stake,” said Shuman, referencing the famous operating philosophy Mark Zuckerberg used to take Facebook to stratospheric heights. Not a great recipe for pharma, to say the least.

Tech and biopharma differ in many other ways as well. Generally speaking, tech is solution-centric while the pharma market revolves around products. Tech solutions are code-driven, while pharmaceutical offerings involve complex manufacturing processes that are “highly customized for each drug and drug formulation, often requiring a dedicated cold chain to get from factory to patient,” said Shuman.

Technology products are peddled in large part through channel sales and collaborative selling efforts, while pharmaceutical firms spend lots of resources comarketing and copromoting joint products. Tech companies—particularly software vendors—can sell and distribute products through distributors, resellers, and system integrators,  or by “white labeling” their products­ via OEM agreements. Patients buy drugs from pharmacies, while pharma companies often rely on combination therapies. Where new subscription-based business models are predicated on the “land, adopt, expand, and renew” approach, pharma’s product-based life cycle management is usually expressed in the form of “new indications and new formulations.”

Disparities Extend to IT, Pharma Alliance Practices

Alliance portfolios, partnerships, and alliance manager roles look much different in these industries as well. Pharma alliances are negotiated individually and often underpinned by detailed long-term contracts with multiple subagreements, while tech partnerships can often be grouped along a particular area of focus and covered by blanket contract terms that apply to an entire partner program. Today, technology companies partner on platforms around common APIs, while pharma companies license individual assets. The pharmaceutical industry banks on partnerships at all stages of the drug-development life cycle, from research to commercialization, while tech usually partners when it is time to go to market.

Just about everything a tech alliance manager does is in the name of driving revenue—in fact, alliance practices are expected to generate new streams. Although revenue generation is a major imperative to pharma alliance managers, it is secondary to risk mitigation and maximizing the value of joint assets; pharma managers spend more time monitoring contract compliance—determining when amendments or entirely new agreements are necessary—than their tech counterparts do.

Tech alliance managers must earn the commitment of partner resources, while pharma contracts usually spell out resource obligations. Instead, biopharma alliance managers focus their energy on giving higher-ups “all the data they need to make smart decisions,” according to Shuman. Given the distributed nature of tech alliance management, the alliance division must actively engage field sales to get salespeople to actively shop an alliance solution. In biopharma, the field “doesn’t have choice,” in Shuman’s words.

Reconcilable Differences

How do you actually reconcile these differences? Jan Twombly, CSAP, The Rhythm of Business’s president, illustrated the answer with an anonymous case study where a Big Pharma corporation and a technology outfit leveraged the latter’s IoT platform to codevelop apps and medical devices and collect real-world evidence (RWE) from patients that would ultimately enable highly personalized care. Their business model rested on software subscriptions paid for by the biopharma entity to the tech company, which is “different from what biopharma companies are used to,” said Twombly. A collaborative framework was established in several key areas—the two organizations settled on joint development, cocommercialization, and revenue sharing arrangements. However, the pharma company was tasked with deciding what it wanted in the device, what the device would do, and what outcomes it would produce, while the tech company determined how to take the platform itself to market.

On a broader level, the companies needed to align on the intended outcomes, regulatory pathway, decision-making processes, and go-to-market messaging. This turns out to be easier said than done. Pharmaceutical companies are used to applying software to internal processes but not to product development, nor are they well versed in working with tech companies in a true vendor-relationship capacity. On a practical level, IT and pharma alliance managers have drastically different titles and functions.

“It may be challenging to engage in stakeholder mapping and getting the right people in the meetings,” said Twombly.

Extensive regulatory-, safety-, and quality-related processes are new to tech, which forced the IoT vendor in this case to rely on the pharmaceutical company’s expertise.

“[Pharmaceutical companies] should be in the lead when it comes to determining what the regulatory pathways are going to be,” said Twombly.

Lighter and Leaner Governance, Stronger Champions, and More Listening

Both entities needed to reimagine the governance process and the role of their joint steering committee (JSC).

“Governance-through-committee doesn’t work all that well in a lean tech company,” said Twombly, before noting that this presented an opportunity for the biopharma alliance managers to try on a lighter, “more agile” governance where teams met more frequently but for less time.

Governance is especially important in ensuring transparent decision making; it may require especially rigorous stakeholder management and a different decision hierarchy from what either side might be used to. In particular, the parties must devise a governance structure that helps partners align on evidence standards so that the tech company can produce data that will “pave that [regulatory] pathway” to meet the biopharma entity’s standard.

Senior leadership champions are especially important in getting stakeholders to understand the value of digital health partnerships and engage in the new modus operandi required for their execution. To foster collaboration, Twombly spoke of “listening to understand,” a process that involves creating a “common language with shared meaning” that helps leverage each party’s strengths. 

Follow the North Star—and Respect Culture’s Hearty Appetite

Twombly urged partners to boil down their discussion of desired outcomes to three points: 1) Align on a North Star—“know what it is that you are trying to produce, know what the outcome is that you want from this partnership, and keep everybody focused on achieving it”; 2) Agree to milestones and metrics; and 3) Make status against plans visible to all.

Twombly also reminded the audience of the old saying that “culture eats strategy for lunch.” To remedy cultural differences, she recommended that tech alliance pros assume the best of intentions on the part of their biopharma counterparts and speak up and provide alternatives when something won’t work in their environment. On the flip side, pharma companies need to explain their world, with visual aids showing how their organizations work, wherever possible. As with all alliances, everyone must celebrate successes and learn from mistakes.  

Twombly closed with a series of “tips and traps.” For the former, she outlined the following:

  1. Take time to understand how each partner innovates, goes to market, and what partnership looks like to them.
  2. Understand your counterpart’s focus, job, and core responsibilities.
  3. Use the alliance management foundation to decide how to bridge differences—the toolsets provided by ASAP “give you a common baseline which you can work from.”

The three traps to avoid?

  1. Allowing stakeholders to think that a digital health partnership is like all the others—“you’re really going to have to adapt new behaviors and ways of looking at things” because the status quo will not suffice, warned Twombly.
  2. Make sure each side appreciates and leverages what the other brings to the alliance.
  3. Don’t fail to champion your partner and partnership.

Above all, Twombly exhorted companies on both sides to recognize the high stakes and the game-changing potential of these collaborations.

“The promise for digital health is significant for both technology and biopharma companies, never mind the patients,” she said. “Allow these new therapies, applications, and ways of developing drugs to thrive.”

If you registered for the 2020 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, don’t miss out on the bounty of career- and partnership-boosting tips and tricks from some of the profession’s most senior practitioners. The three days of live Summit sessions, plus more than a dozen prerecorded presentations, are available to you on demand until Aug. 18. Log on to the Summit portal soon to access them before they’re gone! 

Tags:  Alignment  alliance practice  alliance principles  Biopharma  biotechs  cloud services  cross-industry alliances  Digital Health  digital technologies  drug candidate  Jan Twombly  Jeff Shuman  metrics  milestones  North Star  partners  partnerships  pharmaceutical  software  The Rhythm of Business 

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