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Uniting Competitors, Creating Allies

Words by Kirstie Turner

During 2020, there has been an augmented display of collaboration between big pharma companies, who have shifted from competitors to partners in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Forming partnerships in such a highly regulated and competitive industry is a complex operation but the benefits are infinite.

From Lord of the Rings’ elves and dwarves, to Toy Story’s Woody and Buzz Lightyear, the competitors-turned-allies literary trope has been employed by storytellers for generations. But 2020 has shown that such alliances are more than just plot twists in pharma’s narrative, as companies team up to face some of the toughest health challenges. During COVID-19, the relationships between many companies saw a momentous overhaul, from once unwavering competitors to now fierce allies. As a highly regulated, competitive industry, pharma partnerships are not simple affairs. But will they take us one chapter closer to the ultimate conclusion: improved outcomes for patients?

Cross-company collaboration in the pharmaceutical industry offers a plethora of benefits for all stakeholders. Rosalind Way, Head of Strategic Partnerships, Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK, explains: “We often look at how we can achieve a ‘triple-win’ – so that we see the benefits for pharma, the healthcare system, and patients. We have some really good examples of partnerships that achieve these aims. However, partnering between pharmaceutical companies, and other industries where relevant, can potentially add a further win when we start to see the benefits of shared expertise in addressing common challenges, thereby ensuring we are providing the best value and impact into the system for improved patient outcomes.”

While rubbing shoulders with the competition may, at first, seem like a diminishing business choice, it could actually provide both parties with a newfound competitive edge. Thomas Huber, Head of Research, Almirall, explains: “Collaboration is a key catalyser and success driver for competitive drug discovery. Core expertise and resources of the two partners can optimally synergise.” And to achieve this competitive edge, mutual trust and tangible benefits are critical to ensure high value. Huber continues: “Successful collaborations are excelled by clear separation of activities based on core competencies. They are built on an open and trustful relationship and have a common goal.”

Along with high levels of trust, a common goal is an element of equal importance to Giles Platford, President, Europe and Canada, Takeda, says: “In any successful partnership, it is critical that all parties align on a set of goals, values, and principles by which to work. Equally, there must be an acknowledgement and respect for the value that each partner brings.” Mutual respect and a shared vision are the key pillars upon which these alliances are built. Without a strong foundation, they are set up to fail.

For pharma, this year has seen one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century: the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been a catalyst for more partnerships between these powerful companies, as the need for a vaccine outweighed any initial hesitancies or concerns around losing their competitive edge. Speaking at the WIRED Health: Tech virtual event, Tal Zaks, Chief Medical Officer, Moderna Therapeutics, says: “I have only two competitors here: the virus and the clock.”

Platford says: “It has been really inspiring to see industry come together and pool resources, data, and technology to accelerate efforts towards a vaccine that will combat the virus. The CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance – of which Takeda is a member – is a great illustration of this new collective commitment.” The alliance, which aims to drive the development of a COVID-19 therapy, is made up of a range of partners, including some big players in the pharma industry. Companies are recognising that this challenge is bigger than any individual, as Zaks adds: “The world needs much more than one company to succeed here.”

By utilising partnerships for positive initiatives such as this, pharma can display to stakeholders that they are willing to work together and advance outcomes for patients. Platford adds: “The spirit of collaboration has gone a long way to advance science, which has reinforced trust in industry from stakeholders. I hope that with this positive trend, industry will be seen as a true and valued partner to health systems around the world.”

We have seen partnerships blossom during the pandemic, as the industry races to find a vaccine, but successful pharma collaborations are by no means limited to COVID-19. Almirall’s partnership with WuXi Biologics is a standout example in this realm, as Huber explains: “This strategic partnership aims to develop novel biotherapeutic drug candidates to help patients suffering from severe skin diseases.” This alliance is elevating the companies’ efforts to bring innovation to the field of dermatology.

These two partners bring their individual strengths to the table: “Almirall obtains access to WuXi’s antibody discovery technology platform and can focus internal resources around its strong expertise in target biology and dermatology. Together, a strong team drives biotherapeutic projects,” adds Huber. Almirall’s position as a leader in skin healthcare and WuXi’s development of first-in-class molecules in dermatology make for a winning formula.

While partnerships are being created successfully, the challenges are still vast, notably the high levels of regulation in the industry. “We are rightly vigilant about ensuring our partnerships are transparent in their intention and meet with our compliance, medical, and legal regulations,” says Way. From the beginning, these partnerships must be transparent and regulation-abiding, as the risks for non-compliance are high. Understandably, there is a reluctance to partner for many because of the associated regulatory concerns.

Additionally, companies must ensure they are partnering for the right reasons. Is the partnership truly adding value to patients and advancing science? Way explains: “We need to take our industry forward towards more transformative partnerships rather than merely transactional ones, and that means having a conversation about the potential for different types of partnerships.” Again, transparency about the purpose of the partnership is critical in ensuring tangible value will be gained.

Collaboration is a key catalyser and success driver for competitive drug discovery

However, Platford believes that the various challenges that arise from aligning with competitors are far outweighed by the potential benefits: “Inevitably, there will be challenges along the way, but with open and constructive communication aimed at finding solutions, it is possible to build successful partnerships. After all, the potential of pharma industry partnerships to overcome the most pressing health issues of our time far outweigh any challenges when establishing them.”

As renowned leadership and business expert, Ken Blanchard, once said: ‘none of us is as smart as all of us.’ Whether as a result of COVID-19, or facing up to more common challenges in healthcare, partnerships in this competitive industry are undoubtedly complex, but offer benefits worth pursuing, born from the specialities of each involved party. As we look to the future and consider our post-COVID world, it is more important than ever that we foster relationships, share knowledge and resources, and emerge on the other side of this pandemic as a united industry.

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