How To Keep Academic/Big Pharma Alliances from Going off the Rails
The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston made headlines earlier this month after siding with Novartis in a brewing legal battle with a Dana-Farber spinout, Gatekeeper Pharmaceuticals. The disagreement stems from both companies claiming they are the rightful licensees of certain intellectual property (IP) created by Dana-Farber researchers.
The IP, originally committed to Gatekeeper via an option agreement, was later determined to fall under a broad 2005 alliance with Novartis, which granted the pharma exclusive rights to certain Dana-Farber projects. This dispute over who controls the licensing rights to a potential cancer drug is sure to bring attention to the issues inherent in broad strategic alliances between academia and industry.
It’s common for companies to sponsor the work of an individual lab or to support a specific project, but these types of broad institutional strategic alliances that grant rights to wide areas of technology were once rare, even controversial. But they have been proliferating in recent years. Washington University in St. Louis (Pfizer), Cancer Research UK, the University of Pennsylvania (AstraZeneca) and the Salk Institute (Sanofi-Aventis) are a few who have inked deals within the last couple of years. While many of these academic institutions are wading for the first time into this style of arrangement, the Scripps Research Institute has managed large strategic industry alliances for the better part of the last three decades and currently counts Pfizer and Novartis as major corporate partners.
At Scripps, these deals have evolved to include research funding and IP licensing components. They provide important benefit to both Scripps and our corporate partners. Scripps gains valuable research and discretionary funds, used to seed early research projects and recruit/retain top faculty, in addition to enabling access to expertise and infrastructure more prevalent in a pharmaceutical company (e.g. specialized animal models). In turn, our partners gain access to the kind of transformative research that is uniquely enabled in academia.
Despite the obvious benefits, broad research alliances such as these can also present challenges-inadequate communication, misalignment of incentives and a community perception that the academic partner is inaccessible to other potential industrial collaborators. These challenges need to be managed properly if both parties are to realize full value from the relationship.
Broad alliances involve a large amount of information exchange, the sheer volume of which necessitates regular attention. Systematic, frequent and open communication is a must. Further, the decision making inherent in these relationships, such as which projects warrant licensing and which projects warrant additional funding, require dedicated attention by leaders from both academic and industry research groups. Scripps manages this effort with a dedicated alliance manager responsible for coordinating communication with its pharma partners and a shared electronic portal to facilitate information exchange. An alliance manager from our partners does the same.
Ensuring that researchers within both organizations are properly incentivized is also very important. Aligning the interests of academic researchers with the goals of an industry partner can be achieved through access to specialized resources, the opportunity to participate in product development through consulting relationships, or license agreements containing success-based payments. These measures can help to motivate academic researchers, where appropriate, to recognize and actively collaborate on projects of interest to the corporate partner.
When communication is adequate and incentives are aligned, it becomes easier not only to recognize and develop opportunities of mutual interest, but recognize and partner elsewhere those that aren’t-the latter being an essential part of any academic organization’s mission to maximize the impact of federally funded research on human health.
The Scripps Research Institute, along with many of our contemporaries, have found that broad strategic alliances, through the funding and collaborative opportunities they provide, enhance the research capabilities of academic groups-a fundamental benefit central to our mission that make it well worth navigating their inherent challenges.