Ensuring Successful Industry-Academia Collaborations

Collaborations between pharmaceutical or medical technology companies with academic research groups exhibit certain distinctive features not present when these industry players partner with each other. We look at some of the unique challenges and opportunities thrown up in these situations.

This article is the fourth in a series on R&D collaborations between smaller biotech/medtech companies or academic research groups (‘David’) with much larger multinational corporations (‘Goliath’). In the earlier articles, we looked at elements common to most such “David-and-Goliath” collaborations, in particular the hidden reasons for failure, the critical ingredients that need to be in place at the outset and the key success factors driving successful execution. Whereas in this article, we will highlight issues that apply specifically to collaborations between commercial bioscience R&D organisations and academic research groups. Based on some preliminary conclusions emerging from my ongoing research (see sidebar), this article seeks to provide useful advice for industry sponsors of academic collaborations.

We will start by discussing how prospective industry sponsors can make themselves more attractive to academic collaborators. Next, we consider what specific needs of academics ought to be taken into account when designing the collaborations. We then discuss why aligning industry and academic collaborators is inherently challenging, before ending by mentioning a number of recent developments that could signal an exciting future.

Important Ingredients for attracting academic collaborators

It is no surprise that the first prerequisite for an industry sponsor is to be willing to spend money! However, just as important is the sponsor’s reputation for integrity. Yes, academics do want and need funding, but it is just as important that the sponsor has built a reputation for treating academia fairly and with respect. When approached by a company they have not worked with before, most academics will reach out to their network to ask about their peers’ experiences with said company. Furthermore, the reputation in the public eye of that company is important too, especially with regards to any negative publicity concerning ethical behaviour.

A popular academic group in a scientific domain that has application to major disease areas will have many prospective industry suitors. In addition to the two prerequisites above, there are four other elements which can differentiate sponsors in the eyes of academia.

Academics like challenging and interesting work that has potential to generate eventual publications. Sponsors who add value through making available scientific tools and other items that support the academics’ research are also highly appreciated. Furthermore, well-regarded sponsors need to have a critical mass of know-how in the scientific domain of the collaboration – academics appreciate and respect those who can have a sensible and interesting dialogue about the read-outs from their work. As the head of a world-renowned academic laboratory said to me:

“Many of the large pharmas are hollowing out their scientific expertise, increasingly they can’t judge good versus bad, and struggle to have meaningful scientific dialogue in specialist areas”

Last but not least, personal chemistry and stable relationships are highly valued. Many academics have become very wary of companies who are constantly reorganising and changing their key contact points. Furthermore, the longevity of involvement in a particular field elicits respect from academics, as the quotes below illustrate:

“We hate the musical chairs every 2–3 years from reoganisations and mergers”

“Our people work for decades in their field, whereas someone working in an area for only 2 to 3 years is not really seen as cutting edge”

Accommodating academics’ key needs when designing collaborations

There are a few critical needs of academia which industry sponsors need to address when designing a collaboration. These aspects are reflected in some of the sponsor differentiators mentioned earlier but we nevertheless expand upon them in this section.

Firstly, academics want interesting and challenging problems, especially those that trigger new lines of enquiry for their research. Historically, many collaborations resulted in the industry sponsors treating the academic laboratory as a contract research organisation (‘CRO’) conducting piecemeal studies and experiments to order, using specialist models, tools or biological samples that the laboratory had unique access to. The latter are often the principal reasons why the sponsor finds the collaboration attractive, and furthermore, a CRO-like arrangement is “easy for the corporate bean counters to monitor and approve payments”. However, in many pure CRO-like arrangements, barriers are being created to tapping the academics’ thinking and creative energy. They find this kind of repetitive work boring:

“The head of the lab may like the money, but the lab staff, many of them highly rated postdocs in their field, hate being treated like production workers … unless you can make it intellectually interesting for them”

The best you can reasonably expect in these situations is that they execute the sponsored studies within the terms of the contract. And there will be a tendency for this kind of work to be actually carried out by comparatively inexperienced masters or doctoral students rather than by career researchers.

Secondly, publishing is crucial for academics’ careers. The design of the collaboration should incorporate mechanisms that allow publication of some aspects of the work being sponsored, without breaching proprietary secrets of course. Many sponsors are concerned about the potential leakage of intellectual property or premature release to the public eye of new approaches that could give them a competitive advantage.

One approach for ensuring interesting and publishable work while still giving sponsors’ access to the academics’ unique tools for repetitive experiments is a two-component structure for the sponsored work:

  1. Repetitive experiments that the academics have to conduct for the sponsor – the ‘CRO’ part.
  2. Research work within a broad scope agreed with the sponsor that is publishable as long as no proprietary secrets are revealed. This creates a resource for speculative work that can lead in any case to valuable insights and new opportunities for the sponsor.

Thirdly, an operational contribution from the sponsor is highly valued. Academics appreciate scientific tools, hard-to-source reagents, access to specialist equipment and other items that support the academics’ research interests. Particularly well-regarded are sponsors who deploy some of their own people to help by:

  • Transferring existing or developing new assays and protocols for the academics to execute.
  • Conducting studies on the sponsors’ specialist in-house equipment.

This builds the relationship and creates opportunities for valuable new insights to emerge through the interactions for both the current project and for wider applicability.

As mentioned earlier, reputation is an important characteristic that academics look for in sponsors. Particularly when the sponsor has not collaborated before with anyone in the parent institution, it makes sense to build reputation and the academic collaboration step-by-step, taking a longer-term investment perspective. For example, starting with high profile but comparatively low-cost funding of a few postdocs and PhD students to build:

  • Trust and relationships.
  • Mutual understanding of each other’s perspectives, needs and capabilities.
  • Corporate brand at the institution.

Once the above has been achieved, the sponsor can then start setting up more focussed and more intense projects. It is a well-known fact that multi-project collaborations over a sustained period have much higher return on investment.

In keeping with the global open innovation trend, some industry players run programmes that encourage academic groups to submit new ideas in a competitive process, the winners of which receive small grants to further develop their ideas. This is seen as a way to build the corporate brand amongst academics and as a precursor to subsequent major collaborations. However this approach can be a double-edged sword. For sure, it enables lesser-known academic groups to make themselves known to industry. But depending on how the competition is positioned and scoped, it can have a negative effect with those who do not win (which is the majority of applicants of course), especially if these laboratories are already well-known in their field, as one senior academic explained:

“These ‘idea fishing’ programmes that some companies run are not always appreciated; in particular those that indiscriminately solicit bids across all specialisms to ‘see what you have’ often create internal competition across the university. And it gives the impression that they do not know which fields they want to concentrate on, and have no opinion for what they feel might be the most promising new scientific approaches.”

Alignment between industry and academia is inherently more difficult

Historically, only a small minority of academic leaders and their laboratories have a strong desire to be embedded in industry’s commercial vision i.e. to generate market-viable real-world therapeutics and diagnostics. Even if an academic group wanted to do so, they usually do not understand the process and find it hard to appreciate what commercial organisations have to go through as regards industrial-standard rigour for laboratory notes, experimental protocols and eventually ‘GxP’ process standards in the later stages.

Unlike collaborations with a CRO or a small biotech, it much harder to enforce contractual deliverables and timelines in an inherently more loosely-controlled academic environment, even if the academic group’s leader is on board. Sponsors need to find ways to ensure that the whole academic team have the motivation and desire to deliver what they need from them.

Sponsors also need to realistic about what they will get from an academic collaboration. For example, most drug discovery research groups are mandated to produce patentable therapeutic molecules. But they will not get usually get these directly from an academic collaboration (unlike a collaboration with say a small biotech company). What they can get however are:

  • Tools and better insights for their projects.
  • New treatment concepts and new potential targets.

Emerging Developments and Opportunities

Many sponsors do not yet sufficiently exploit their academic partners’ network of other specialist academia, whether this be within the same institution or globally. Operating at the leading edge of their fields, most top academic laboratories work with other academic groups worldwide that enable or accelerate their own research. Awareness of and introductions to these other groups can be immensely valuable to sponsors, not just for the current area of collaboration but in many other wider contexts too. This is an opportunity waiting to be captured by forward-thinking sponsors.

Some academic institutions have set goals to increase the practical applications from their research, and in certain countries, these goals are being encouraged and incentivised by government. Consequently, these institutions have greatly improved the professionalism of how they work with industry. Their actions include setting up standard contracts and deploying key account managers (many of whom have come from industry) to handle the management and business interface with industy. Academic laboratories in these institutions are also increasingly open to having dedicated people to work on collaborations without having a strong onus to publish, as one laboratory head commented:

“Our collaboration leader works full time to manage our projects with Company X. She is not on the publishing track, and my expectations are that she makes sure the goals of our collaboration are achieved”

There is an emerging trend for some academic laboratories to become more like drug or device discovery groups. Some laboratory heads have already achieved publication fame and now seek “save the world” fame. Others see a moral duty to ensure that their group’s intellectual prowess leads to something practical. And others too recognise that the best outcomes will arise if their activities are more closely aligned and integrated with industry. In all of these cases, the academic groups in question are very open to evolving and adapting the way they work with industry.

Funding for very early stage biotech and medtech startups is increasingly challenging as the financing community has been burnt in the past on highly speculative investments. Some venture capitalists have responded by funding virtual project-centric entities with only a handful of dedicated people. While this approach ensures that early-stage ideas get funded at manageable risk, it does not encourage assembly of the critical scientific mass needed for sustainable platforms in new scientific fields. If the virtual project-centric approach becomes the preferred norm, the number of long-term oriented platform biotech companies of sufficient size will begin to dwindle. Perhaps the gap can be bridged by certain academic laboratories essentially becoming platform biotech companies that generate new candidate drugs or new device prototypes in collaboration with industry sponsors. A typical biotech company often has ambitions to be either sold to a large pharma or to become a large pharma itself, both of which are high risk high return paths. Whereas an academic laboratory can adopt a longer-term perspective and invest in the right capabilities and activities. So academic groups that operate like discovery research houses can become over time an alternative vehicle to reliably generate new therapeutic and diagnostic candidates.