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Cross-Industry Panel Imparts Insights for Executing David-Goliath Partnerships

Posted By Jon Lavietes, Thursday, June 25, 2020

Big company–small company alliances are a fact of life in some industries. You see them in tech when Global 1,000 technology vendors integrate innovative functionality from smaller startups that fill gaps in their offerings, or when Big Pharma organizations team up with biotechs to develop promising compounds into marketable drugs. Also known as “David-Goliath” alliances, these relationships can contain many hidden land mines if people aren’t careful. Just ask ASAP president and CEO Michael Leonetti, who has led alliance groups in Big Pharma organizations in his career.

“Quite honestly, I’ve seen [this dynamic] kill many an alliance in my time,” said Leonetti in the lead-up to a panel session titled “Managing Power Imbalances: How to Navigate Partnerships Between Large and Small Organizations,” one of the highlights of the second day of this year’s ASAP Global Alliance Summit. 

Moderated by Jessica Wadd, partner at Vantage Partners, this well-rounded panel of seasoned alliance professionals from multiple industries brought a wealth of past and present perspectives from both ends of these types of collaborations:

  • Steve Pessagno, Alliance director and head of global alliance management operations, at GSK
  • Amy Walraven, founder, president, and chief strategy officer at Turnkey Risk Solutions
  • Joy Wilder Lybeer, senior vice president of enterprise alliances at Equifax
  • Troy M. Windt, associate vice president of global alliances and external relations at Reata Pharmaceuticals

“Cultural Diagnosis” Reveals What Might Ail a Collaboration of Big and Small

In kicking off the discussion with an overview of each panelist’s alliance portfolio, Lybeer noted that Equifax relies on smaller outfits to supplement its offerings in ways the company can’t do on its own, She added that the exercise of evaluating a variety of big and small partners “allows us to develop our understanding of potential coopetition, areas where we can supplement our capabilities, or find new routes to market.”

Walraven agreed with Lybeer that smaller companies have plenty of opportunities to complement larger organizations’ offerings with niche “cohesive enhancements.” 

Pessagno, who works with a number of GSK’s R&D-centric alliances with small entities, extolled the virtues of conducting a “cultural diagnosis” at the outset of the relationship to determine how the organizations are and aren’t aligned. This process usually unearths what truly matters to the collaboration as a whole, and these priorities that emerge are eventually woven into the governance and operational elements of the partnership, including the periodic health checks.

Asked what her organization looks for in a larger partner, Walraven cited domain expertise, a strong reputation, and a shared vision of where the fraud, risk, and credit markets, areas in which Humaitrix competes, are heading.

When do you know when you as a smaller organization might have trouble coping with the power imbalance? Windt said to pay attention to the latter’s adaptability right from the start. Since a large firm has lots of processes, can it tailor an alliance structure to fit a partner that might only have two points of contact? He recounted instances where an alternative structure was inserted into the contractual language only to see the large company “migrate back to one way of doing things.”    

Dealing with Outsized Expectations

At one point, Wadd wondered if the panelists ever got excited about a David-Goliath partnership, only to be disappointed when it didn’t fulfill its promise. The panel had no shortage of stories. Walraven spoke of a past partner that showed tremendous enthusiasm about her organization when it was brought in at a late stage of negotiation, but ultimately revealed itself to have little grasp of her company’s value proposition and business model as the collaboration unfolded. The parties tried retooling their joint client deliverables multiple times only to pull the plug on the project after a succession of misfires.

“You really want to make sure that you align ahead of time and that everyone has the same understanding before you set expectations about deliverables with the client,” she said.

Lybeer counseled viewers to identify “pink flags” quickly and abandon an initiative early if the team’s gut feeling is that it will never get onto the right course. She did, however, remind viewers that “the first idea is rarely ever the best idea,” and that oftentimes you don’t necessarily have to walk away from the partner altogether after one failed joint venture.

“As long as we are able and willing to learn and work together, we will find that next innovative idea together,” she said.

Plodding Behemoths Test Nimbler Smaller Companies’ Patience

What should small companies understand about their larger counterparts when evaluating a potential collaboration? Pessagno warned startup and SME alliance professionals that there is a good possibility some of the people in the negotiation stage will disappear after the launch of the partnership. He urged larger corporations to “deal with this transparently” and make some effort to guard against an “asymmetry in the governance.”

Even after some of the initial negotiators drift away, Pessagno acknowledged later in the panel discussion that the larger company’s team might still be four times the size of the smaller counterpart’s, and that the latter will have to endure cumbersome governance and operational processes at times. He recommended that the “Goliath” in the relationship assign a single contact person to the small company’s alliance manager and let the former liaison with the rest of the team and manage the bureaucracy.

In addition, Pessagno implored smaller collaborators to dispel the idea that their larger counterparts have tons of resources to dedicate to their activities. All alliances are competing for a finite amount of resources, even in big companies.

Tech Teams Need Alliance Management Principles

Walraven and Lybeer were asked specifically about analytics-based David-Goliath alliances. The big takeaway: remember that technology partnerships entail more than just technology. Lybeer once handed a technology alliance to the tech team and said, “Good luck to you.”   

“Mistake, mistake, mistake,” she lamented. “Alliance management competencies are a thing.”

The tech team didn’t understand escalation processes and collaboration models, which ended up delaying the activities of the partnership considerably.

Walraven exhorted alliance teams to look at everything through the technical, strategic, solution, and practitioner lenses. Also, take into account that each client and prospect will similarly imagine a joint solution differently.

“Everybody will see it through a different perspective,” she said.  

Alliance Skills Will Help Small-Company Personnel for Life

As the panel concluded, the panelists offered some final takeaways. Walraven reiterated that rigorous work aligning stakeholders on execution strategy up front would ultimately make it “easier to deliver to the client.”

Lybeer urged virtual attendees to strike that balance of being tough without compromising a collaborative mindset.  

“Let’s make sure we’re hard on the hard issues, but not so hard on each other,” she advised.

She echoed her earlier sentiments that you can always walk away from a project that isn’t meeting KPIs without abandoning the partnership entirely.

Most important, according to Windt, work with your HR department to teach collaborative skills and alliance management principles to everyone working on the partnership who may not have an alliance management background. In fact, lobby to make it a permanent part of employee training programs, wherever possible.

“They will serve you well as a person and an employee for the rest of your life,” he said.

Remember, Summit registrants can find this panel, a plethora of sessions from the first two days of the conference, and several prerecorded presentations on demand in the 2020 ASAP Global Alliance Summit portal.  

Tags:  Alliance  alliance management  alliance professionals  alliance skills  Amy Walraven  collaborations  Cultural Diagnosis  enterprise  GSK  Jessica Wadd  Joy Wilder Lybeer  operations  partnership  Reata Pharmaceuticals  skills  Steve Pessagno  Troy M. Windt  Turnkey Risk Solutions  Vantage Partners 

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Academia and Industry—Creating a Seamless Fit (Part Two)

Posted By Genevieve Fraser, Wednesday, June 7, 2017

In the session “Making the Most of Industry-Academia Collaborations,” Mark Coflin, CSAP, head of alliance management at Shire Pharmaceuticals was joined by his colleague, Joe Sypek, PhD, director and external science lead at Shire, as they explored cultural differences between partners in academia and industry working together to find a cure for a disease (see Part I of this blog post) http://www.strategic-alliances.org/blogpost/1143942/277595/Academia-and-Industry-Partnerships-Creating-a-Seamless-Fit--Part-I. Joining them at the 2017 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, “Profit, Innovation, and Value for the Part­nering Enterprise,” were Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute’s (SBP’s) Paula Norris, PhD, laboratory director and project manager, and Sarah Hudson, PhD, R&D project and operations associate director. The 2017 Summit was held Feb. 28-March 2 in San Diego, Calif.

 

Norris works with principal investigators (PIs) to develop strategic plans for lab operations and policies. On any given project, she might work with four or five partners at a time. Some are smaller start-up companies; others are larger pharmaceutical companies. “In the past, we were grant-centric, but now less so as we work with industries,” she explained. “We explore a partner’s expectations, then go back to our group and discuss what we need to do to make it work. But there’s a language gap with industry. The language in industry is not necessarily the same as ours. So at times, there’s miscommunication. But we’ve gotten better at asking questions about what they mean, especially when we’re not sure [of] what they want or their end goal.”

 

“We’ve spent time working on culture and skill seton education across the institute. For example, what is a hit or lead?” she asked rhetorically. “We need to educate in terms of the basic terms of an alliance partner’s language.”

 

“It’s also important to hone in on expectations. If partners have different expectations, it can cause problems,” Norris stated. “Instead of going off on a tangent, we need to understand the scope and what the goals are and stay focused. Otherwise, we will fail to line up with the milestones. The criteria are only met when the milestone is achieved. “

 

“It can be a challenge if a partner says it’s a ‘no go,’ and we think there is an avenue. We need to remember that the money comes from a partner. If there’s scope creep, we need to draw them back to achieve the milestone. To do that you must have the right people involved and have communicated broadly. You need to define the statement of workmake sure the language is conciseso both parties are clear about what they need to do for the project.”

 

Hudson acknowledged that she and Norris are proud of the innovation and knowledge base of PIs, but to retain the culture, academia must adapt to make industry-academia projects run more smoothly. This only happens if someone is designated as the point person: “It’s quite important for long-term capabilities. A manager makes sure deadlines are met for milestones.”

As the leader of the project manager group at SBP, Hudson’s role is to partner with scientific project leaders in collaborations and initiatives. “These pharmaceutical and biotech companies, as well as alliances with other academic institutions, all have the same flavor but run differently,” Hudson conceded. “So, we do what we must to adapt with projects run by a joint steering committee.”

It’s important not to assume everything is going well, Coflin added.  As in every kind of relationship, the person talking needs to be truthful so that members of the team come to you with issues.  Being a good partner involves communicationsmonthly meetings. “Scientists tend to be reserved so they won’t get scooped. You need to create trust. Labs operate in a silo working by themselves, but to have an effective partnership, you need to work in a collaborative environment,” he said.

 

Scientists need to develop basic alliance management skills, Hudson stressed. “Because we don’t have large infrastructure, it’s important that we impart these skills to scientists so we can be proactive, instead of merely responsive.”

 

Since their groups have been working on alliance skills, both Hudson and Norris have personally seen a difference in greater productivity and efficiency through collaboration as their projects progress.

 

Sypek agrees that things break down when there is a lack of communication. If you are to reach the next level, you need to feel comfortable about talking with partners, he said. “The more you communicate, the better you get. But each project must be treated as individual, as unique, especially if the PI and/or goals are different.”

 

“What you are doing is transformative to an institution, Coflin stated. “Just as we do at Shire, you must prepare your institution to partner. Despite the fact they might be uncomfortable, it’s important to give them tools to be ready to partner. That sort of preparation is how you build capability.”

 

The entire panel then agreed on one axiom: A common goal helps make it work!

Part I of this blog post focuses on Shire Pharmaceutical’s perspective on academic-industry partnerships. http://www.strategic-alliances.org/blogpost/1143942/277595/Academia-and-Industry-Partnerships-Creating-a-Seamless-Fit--Part-I

Tags:  alliance partners  alliance skills  biotech  collaboration  communication  Joe Sypek  Mark Coflin  partner  partner language  partners  Paula Norris  principal investigators  Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute  Sarah Hudson  Shire Pharmaceuticals  transformation 

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