DDF 2018: The key to academic partnerships? Look before you leap

At the end of the day, the answers to several questions about academic partnerships can be answered at the beginning. (rawpixel / Pixabay)

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to academic partnerships, but successful ones have one thing in common: communication. And while it may be obvious that face-to-face meetings and ongoing check-ins keep partnerships on track, it’s the up-front communication that is key. 

“It’s important, before you start, to understand if you really want to work with that group because sometimes, it’s just not a fit even though they’ve got that great animal model that you would like to test,” said Lisa McKerracher, CEO of Bioaxone Biosciences, who spent 15 years in academia before jumping into biotech. “It’s probably one of the most important things to figure out from the beginning to make sure it goes forward successfully.” 

“You really have to agree up front—it's surprising how often it doesn’t quite happen,” agreed Jim Doherty, chief research officer at Sage Therapeutics, who joined McKerracher, Chandra Ramanathan, vice president and head of the East Coast Innovation Center at Bayer, and Joseph Menetski, associate VP of research partnerships at the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) on the academic partnerships panel at this year’s Drug Development Forum.

“It really is worth to sit down up front to list through what [the collaboration will look like] and continue to communicate throughout," Doherty said.

Determining if an academic institution or pharma company is the right partner can be intuitive, said McKerracher, sort of like meeting people at a cocktail party, except there’s more to consider in science. Ultimately, she thinks of it as a spectrum of levels of assessment, “from the scientific points to personality.” 

Even when the cultural fit seems perfect, alliance management is crucial, as chemistry doesn’t just appear on day 1, Ramanathan said.

It's also important, early on, to identify the areas of overlap that will benefit everyone, both industry and academia, said Menetski. “If you don’t do it at the beginning, it never happens,” he said. 

At the end of the day, the answers to several questions can—and should—be answered at the beginning. Different players view intellectual property differently, so being confident of your own IP before going into research negotiations can ease the process, McKerracher said. And “mapping out” early how the partners will share data can head off potential conflict down the road, Menetski said.This process could help make partnerships feel less transactional. 

“One of the things I think works pretty well is going back to the concept of being a good collaborator. We do things ourselves that the academic partner may not typically do,” Doherty said. The industry partner may run pharmacokinetic studies, for example, something the academic partner may not do on its own, but that would “enhance papers or grants,” and the “story the partners are trying to develop together.”