Words by Louise Rogers
When two stars collide, the result is often explosive; the aftermath creating a light visible on Earth thousands, sometimes billions, of years later. The changing dynamics of industry innovation has led to the prevailing mergers between big pharmaceutical companies and small corporations - the likes of small-scale biotechs, innovation hubs, and academia - creating healthcare solutions with a far reach, affecting society for thousands of years to come. From the alliances that began in 2020 to formulate a COVID-19 vaccine, to the partnerships that have spanned decades to accelerate cell and gene therapies from bench to bedside, the possibilities that come from the collaboration between big and small reach to infinity and beyond. Yet, with very different structures and processes, it can be difficult at times for the different companies to navigate these unions. What systems need to be in place to ensure these partnerships continue advancing into the future?
The evolution of competition to collaboration is nothing new; in 2004, 50% of big pharma’s research projects were carried out as collaborations with smaller biotechs and between 2012 and 2016 the number of industry–academia collaborations near doubled. “Pharma have been active at sourcing external innovation for decades and the way they work with smaller companies is pretty advanced. That said, there are a few things that can obviously change,” explains Stephan Emmerth, Director of Therapeutic Innovation and BaseLaunch, Basel Area Business & Innovation, a non-profit agency that funds and helps start-ups and university spinouts evolving into larger biotech corporations. “It can be very hard to navigate within these large companies because you need to convince so many people – it is easy to find your way in but not so easy to find the people that make the decisions. What would help smaller biotechs is if there were processes in place that allowed for quicker partnerships and decision-making within these big firms. Small companies can’t wait too long for a yes or no.”
What would help smaller biotechs is if there were processes in place that allowed for quicker partnerships
Smaller corporations have driven an overwhelming amount of innovation over the past years, bringing agility and a focussed approach to science and technology that steers clear of the red tape bound to larger corporations. However, there is the ever-present frustration that a lack of funding prevents the execution of certain innovations. Thus, big pharma is pulled into orbit, carrying its deep pockets and sheer scale.
Studies&Me, a virtual contract research organisation, specialises in the decentralisation of clinical trials. With a patient and data-driven vision, the company aims to set new standards for clinical research by digitalising treatment development across all stages: protocol development, patient recruitment, study conduct, and continuous data reporting to both patients and healthcare professionals on their smartphones and dashboards. John Zibert, CEO, Studies&Me speaks of the company’s experience in partnering with pharma and how these larger corporations can remain partners of choice for smaller ones. “It makes a world of difference in larger companies to have a small group of people within the corporate setting who are empowered to work differently and make decisions that fit this novel way of doing clinical trials via decentralised clinical trial design.”
Both Emmerth’s and Zibert’s accounts indicate the wide-spread need for teams, maybe even departments, within pharma that are specialised and dedicated to operating with smaller corporations; a framework where professionals can operate in an environment that grants a higher degree of empowerment and a shorter decision-making process.
“In terms of pharma fundamentally changing their culture, I don’t think that a big company can or should act like a small one. There is a reason they have all these processes in place, just due to sheer size, and it makes it impossible for them to make decisions quickly, as is often the case in a small company,” explains Emmerth.
I don’t think that a big company can or should act like a small one
Smaller companies, and the events of such partnerships, act as strategic pillars to help pharmaceutical giants redesign themselves. Yet, it seems unfeasible and ineffective for large corporations to remodel their whole infrastructure to accommodate for these alliances. What they should be focussing on is creating and developing bespoke talent and teams that are able to execute the collaborations in an effective and efficient manner.
When two stars collide, the result is determined by the mass and speed at which the stars are travelling at, relative to one another. If two stars are travelling at a high speed then the stellar collision is often destructive, leaving behind mostly gas. But when two stars merge slowly, we are left with a new star that is both bigger and brighter. Perhaps this is also what is needed for effective partnership between big pharma and smaller firms: a slower, more strategically planned lead-up to the coalition, in terms of people and processes, so that when the two come together, the partnership is easy and quick to navigate. We’ve seen the effect that can happen when two stars collide, but what would happen if three or four (or more) were to merge? Continuous improvement on the execution of these partnerships should lead to the formation of infinite stellar results, the effects of which will be seen for generations to come.