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The foundation of a ‘true collaboration’ between pharmaceutical companies and academic researchers

When the Innovative Medicines Initiative began it was a relatively new concept to have ‘true collaboration’ between academia and pharma. During some of the early days of U-BIOPRED[1] the first discussions between pharma and academia were more like two distinct groups talking alongside each other.

As the project developed the character of the interactions in meetings changed. Those in the meetings noticed a difference, or perhaps better said a lack of difference. If you just listened to a meeting and did not know who was from a pharma company, and who was an academic you would not be able to tell. All were freely and equally contributing ideas to solve problems and more importantly building on each other’s thoughts. It was much closer to a true collaboration than at the start. We had begun to solve the real problem of academic pharma interactions.

The problem with academic pharma interactions

The real problem is communicating effectively. Morris Birnbaum[2] points out that the biggest challenge is that pharma and academia have different goals. For academics the goal is publications, and for pharma the goal is to advance a new chemical or biologic entity. In U-BIOPRED we have some advantages in this regard.

We benefit from the intellectual property construct that underpins IMI projects. Everyone has access to the outputs of a project for ‘research use’ while commercialisation rights belong to those who contributed to the development of an output. Perhaps the most important output is data. Academic researchers use data to drive publications, and pharma partners use data to bolster their internal decisions. This creates mutual benefits that also serve the higher goal of improving our ability to care for individuals with severe asthma. However, this only creates a framework and is not the most important factor.

The partners in U-BIOPRED believe strongly in continual communication. At the height of the funding period we had 12-15 online meetings a month and 1-2 face to face meetings each quarter. This is perhaps a brute force approach, but it is likely the most important factor that drove evolution of the interaction into something more than simple discussions.

William Isaacs makes a great analogy. He compares a discussion to a ping pong match. Each side makes their point and hopes to convince the other side they are right. A much better form of interaction is a dialogue. In a dialogue, there is a mutual appreciation and respect for varying points of view. This makes it easier to combine and integrate ideas. Instead of a ping pong match, points of tension become the basis of an effort to think together and create something where both sides win.

It is not surprising that projects that achieve a level interaction that can be characterized as a dialogue are successful.  Groups or teams that work together and follow a set of principles produce more than those which don’t have a set of principles. The set of principles that were tested included having a shared vision, frequency of interaction, participation safety and task orientation[3]. All of these promote moving beyond discussions and into dialogue.

How to foster 'true collaboration'

Moving beyond discussions and into dialogue is the foundation of ‘true collaboration’. From my experience in U-BIOPRED and many other multidisciplinary multi-stakeholder collaborative projects you may not need to use as much of a ‘brute force’ approach as we did in the early days of U-BIOPRED.  The process of moving from discussions and into dialogue is something that can be fostered by adhering to a set of strategies and tactics. Here are 8 of  the ones I come to think of as being the most important:

  1. Structure conversations: We use a set of canvases to make sure that we cover all the important aspects of the topic at hand. In fact, the canvases serve as a way of assuring that you adhere to all the remaining strategies and tactics listed below.
  2. Engage early: The sooner you can begin the interaction the better. The ideal is that everyone contributes to the design of the project.
  3. Make space: Allowing for pauses and not trying to rush through the ‘deadspots’ of a meeting provides space for people to think and expand the line of thought.
  4. Encourage listening: If all everyone is doing is waiting for their turn to make their predetermined points you will be doomed to wallow in pointless discussions
  5. Respect all parties’ internal priorities: I have written earlier on the researcher needs pyramid. While everyone is interested in achieving something bigger than themselves the investment and engagement increases remarkably when a project is also delivering on more immediate internal priorities of individual partners.
  6. Focus on a problem: We all like to help out when there is a problem.
  7. Form a shared vision: A powerful shared vision helps to remind a group of their underlying cohesiveness which will make it easier to end the ping pong match of competitive discussions.
  8. Make unexpected connections: When connections are made between ideas in the course of discussion it highlights the mutual respect and encourages everyone to build on those connections.

A ‘true collaboration’ between academia and pharma can be a powerful means of accelerating innovation. However, it will not happen in a vacuum. There has to be a recognition that working in a collaborative project is not working with an internal team. Different strategies and tactics have to be applied. When done well true collaborations achieve much more than you ever expected was possible.

At BioSci Consulting we are focused on helping academic researchers, pharma, disease foundations, transformative technology companies leverage collaborative projects to make a real difference for the future of medicine. Our first goal in any of these efforts is achieving ‘true collaboration’.  This begins from the start with the formation of multi-stakeholder project development alliances. If you want to develop a collaborative project, improve the performance of an ongoing project, or hone your own collaborative project skills, get in touch. We will find a way to help.

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[1] Riley JH et al, U-BIOPRED: evaluation of the value of a public-private partnership to industry, Drug discovery today, 2018

[2] Birnbaum MJ, Pharma and Academia: What we have here is a failure to communicate, Cell Metab., September 2016

[3] Doris Fay CB et al, Getting the most out of multidisciplinary teams: A multi‐sample study of team innovation in health care, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 2006