In the life sciences industry, collaboration is at the heart of innovation. You need look no further for the perfect example than the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. But that is only one of the latest displays of the fruits of collaboration within this industry. While smaller biopharma companies don’t have the same resources as large pharma, they are often sources are great innovation. In fact, according to a report from HBM Partners, 63% of new drugs approved by the FDA in 2018 originated at or were initially developed at smaller biopharma companies.

Even though smaller biopharma companies are working on these innovative technologies, products, mechanisms of action, etc., they often need help to get their innovations through the development phase to commercialization and ultimately to the patients who need them. So, what makes for a strong collaboration between big and small biopharma, what does it take to stand out among many innovative companies and attract the interest of a partner, what are the hurdles that get in the way of a successful collaboration, and how is partnering evolving as COVID has shifted us all to a more virtual way of working?

To find out, PM360 asked those very questions to the leaders of six smaller biotech/pharma companies who have established some successful partnerships with larger biotech/pharma companies in the past few years. Those companies include:

  • Anima Biotech: Focused on leveraging its technology platform, called mRNA Lightning, to discover small molecule drugs by observing mRNA translation for diseases previously thought to be undruggable. The company has entered strategic partnerships with Takeda and Eli Lilly.
  • Portage BiotechClinical-stage oncology company dedicated to sourcing and acquiring the most promising early-stage assets available to build a pipeline of first-in-class/best-in-class therapeutic candidates. Currently, has well-established partnerships with both Bristol Myers Squibb and Merck.
  • ProQR Therapeutics: Focused on changing lives by developing RNA therapies for rare genetic diseases. Currently, is advancing drug candidates for disorders affecting the retina, called inherited retinal diseases (IRDs). In September 2021, the company announced a global licensing and research collaboration with Eli Lilly.
  • Pyxis Oncology: Developing a robust pipeline of antibody-drug conjugates and immuno-oncology therapeutics by marrying in-house organic growth with strategic in-licensing and partnerships. Earlier this year, the company came out of stealth mode after in-licensing two promising antibody-drug conjugates from Pfizer and the rights to Pfizer’s ADC technology platform to complement its in-house programs.
  • Selecta BiosciencesFocused on leveraging their clinically validated nanoparticle platform, called ImmTOR™, to develop next-generation tolerogenic gene therapies for patients with autoimmune and rare genetic diseases. In October 2021, Selecta entered three strategic partnerships with Takeda Pharmaceuticals, Genovis, and Ginkgo Bioworks.
  • TFF Pharma: Their patented Thin Film Freezing technology can transform virtually any medicine into a stable dry powder that can be delivered via inhaler as well as through the nose, eye, and/or skin. TFF partners with a broad array of pharmaceutical companies, academic institutions, and government partners including Union Therapeutics, Augmenta Bioworks, and GreenLight Biosciences.

Click on each of the tabs below to find out what the top executive at each of these six companies had to say about what makes collaboration work.

Anima Biotech

What are the top three key elements of an ideal partnership/collaboration?

The science, the business, and the people have all to be aligned. The smaller biotech company must truly commit to the collaboration and resist the shifting of resources back to its own programs. At Anima, we view collaborations as a main growth engine and have structured our teams accordingly.

How do you differentiate yourself from competitors when approaching large pharma?

mRNA small molecule drugs are considered the next big thing by Big Pharma, but the whole space is new with no validated targets. Anima is the only company with a phenotypic screening platform, enabling us to discover multiple molecules that directly work in the live biology of a disease model. Our high scale, fully automated system generates millions of mRNA biology images that are analyzed by a cloud-based AI mRNA image analysis technology for rapid elucidation of the mechanism of action of active compounds.

What are some of the largest obstacles/hurdles associated with strategic collaborations?

Collaborations compete with your internal pipeline for resources and management attention. The problem is aggravated when you partner for “credibility,” but are losing money on the projects. Consider where your platform can rapidly generate unique assets that are attractive to multiple partners, driving profitable deals.

How has partnering evolved given the industry has largely gone towards a virtual model?

In the past, you had to go to all these conferences and hope to meet someone relevant. You then had to rely on them to take your story and sell it to their big company. It was a long, inefficient process with low success rate. In the virtual model, you get to speak directly to top-level R&D executives and you generate initial meetings that include people from multiple groups. At Anima, we have seen substantial improvement with this new model and think that it better fits the fundamental nature of partnering, which requires many iterations and many different people to assess an opportunity.

Portage Biotech

What are the top three key elements of an ideal partnership/collaboration?

Communication and mutual respect are key, as each organization, which are often very different sizes, will have different processes and goals. To achieve mutually beneficial outcomes, it’s critical to effectively leverage the strengths of each party to complement one another. Larger companies need to be flexible on their processes and small companies will want to leverage the resources of their larger partners. At Portage, we established the company with the mission of radically transforming the cancer treatment paradigm, rather than just creating therapies that can be deemed as “me too” approaches and partner with organizations that have larger footprints and more resources.

How do you differentiate yourself from competitors when approaching large pharma?

Our team has a long track record of success in big pharma, which gives us an appreciation of how our partners work and view collaborations. We have worked diligently to foster these relationships in advance of entering formal collaborations, which involves sharing ideas about the field and to help achieve our respective goals and establish a foundation of trust and respect. We will periodically vet our development plans with these companies to ensure we are progressing well to generate compelling packages they would want for a deal. Given our team’s size, we can quickly act and make decisions in a nimble manner.

What are some of the largest obstacles/hurdles associated with strategic collaborations?

Lack of communication can derail any strategic collaboration in this business. At the outset of a partnership, it’s critical to not only clearly define the overarching goals of the work, but ensure every person involved has a clear understanding of the end goal. It’s also important to have the right people around the table. Oftentimes, the smaller partner will have higher level executives involved. The better collaborations that I have been involved with have matched levels on both sides to allow for more balanced discussions on issues. We also make a point to engage our partners in regular, active discussions to ensure we are effectively tracking across each project.

How has partnering evolved given the industry has largely gone towards a virtual model?

In-person meetings and networking events will always serve as great opportunities to reconnect with former colleagues and forge new relationships; however, the virtual shift our industry has experienced has made our world much smaller. As such, we can engage with our partners much more regularly and make decisions more quickly to advance any form of engagement. While in-person meetings are always ideal, we’ve been very efficient at ensuring we do not miss a beat when it comes to advancing our science or identifying new strategic opportunities within the immuno-oncology field.

ProQR Therapeutics

What are the top three key elements of an ideal partnership/collaboration?

Ideal partners have complementary skillsets that bring different expertise to the table. When combined, these skillsets can create something unique. Second, partners should both have a true focus on innovation rooted in addressing unmet needs for patients. Lastly, relationships must be based on mutually aligned goals with transparency and trust on executing those goals between partners. We saw these types of qualities in Eli Lilly with the recent partnership of our Axiomer RNA editing platform technology. With this partnership, there is now potential to expand beyond our current areas of focus, genetic eye diseases.

How do you differentiate yourself from competitors when approaching large pharma?

When approaching large pharma, we leverage our unique scientific proposition, tailored to the target partner. In the field of RNA therapeutics, ProQR is at the forefront of delivering targeted therapies for people with inherited retinal diseases (IRDs). Our RNA therapies are specifically designed to correct the underlying cause of the disease in a person’s RNA to stop disease progression or even reverse symptoms. Our promising scientific pipeline, expertise in the RNA therapy space, and differentiated approach to treating IRDs has been able to capture the attention of large pharma and helps us to stand out from others.

What are some of the largest obstacles/hurdles associated with strategic collaborations?

Some obstacles are associated specifically with strategic alignment and cultural fit between a large corporate enterprise and a younger biotech. However, there is an opportunity to overcome these hurdles. Both large and small pharma often share a top priority of finding novel therapies for people in need, strategic collaborations have the potential to overcome these hurdles and benefit all three parties—the big pharma, the young biotech, and most importantly, the patients.

How has partnering evolved given the industry has largely gone towards a virtual model?

Fairly smoothly—deals get done virtually. For example, our recent partnership with Eli Lilly was executed completely virtually, from start to finish. With the assistance of video calling technology, we have been able to adapt communications. We have observed greater reliance on virtual diligence requirements while at the same time, we have access to broader cohorts of experts within the potential partner companies. The industry benefits from a virtual model in this way. Remote settings allow us the opportunity to connect with different potential partners in the same day, whereas traveling was an obstacle to making connections before.

Pyxis Oncology

What are the top three key elements of an ideal partnership/collaboration?

Every successful partnership begins with trust. Trust enables partners to build rapport, setting the stage for a productive partnership. Trust-based relationships often reflect shared mission, vision, and values, further enabling an effective working relationship.

Partnerships are formed to complement what each other lacks, whether it be capital, IP, capabilities, or talent. Shared goals for the partnership, with explicit roles and responsibilities, allow the whole to function as greater than just the sum of the parts.

Finally, partnerships are never static. They must evolve, grow, and change, making clear communication essential for driving day-to-day operations and maintaining alignment around the collaboration’s future direction and growth.

How do you differentiate yourself from competitors when approaching large pharma?

People, relationships, and “organizational EQ” drive everything. It’s not enough to just have great people on our team, or to even have the right relationships at the large pharma—those are table stakes that unlock the door. What truly differentiates us is our “organizational EQ”—meaning, we understand what motivates and drives the behavior of our pharma partner. This nuanced understanding allows us to propose more tailored collaboration constructs that meet the pharma partner’s needs—thereby giving us a greater likelihood of a successful transaction.

What are some of the largest obstacles/hurdles associated with strategic collaborations?

One of the most significant challenges is agreeing on the details. Aligning on the big picture can be straightforward. However, coming to mutually beneficial terms can take months of negotiation. The parties need to take a “win-win” mindset to negotiations while being able to make compromises, find creative solutions, and remember why the collaboration was first fashioned: to be successful together in accomplishing shared goals.

Another obstacle that could arise is differential leadership styles. Spelling out the decision-making culture at each party in advance will allow substantive points of conflict in the collaboration to be handled more gracefully.

How has partnering evolved given the industry has largely gone towards a virtual model?

Being virtual with less time lost to travel has overcome many communication barriers, allowing for increased opportunities to connect and engage with others in the space. The virtual model has also allowed industry leaders globally to connect with greater geographic reach in a far more efficient manner than previously possible. Now more than ever, having a team with diverse backgrounds that can tap into different ecosystems and networks is essential for striking deals with new partners.

Selecta Biosciences

What are the top three key elements of an ideal partnership/collaboration?

The three elements at the core of each partnership we enter into are: a clear synergy between company platforms and capabilities, an alignment of economic interests, and a cultural fit to ensure the success of the partnership. By ensuring a synergistic fit between programs and technologies product development can be accelerated. By aligning economic interests both parties are motivated to work expeditiously towards a common goal. Lastly, a good cultural fit ensures a solid, long term, working relationship between organizations.

How do you differentiate yourself from competitors when approaching large pharma?

Selecta prides itself on its speed of execution. The extensive experience of our management team when combined with our collaborative and open culture allows Selecta to be a particularly agile company. As well, unique for a company of our size, we have a highly experienced clinical team with the capabilities to execute trials of any phase. For example, we are currently running the Phase 3 study of SEL-212 in chronic refractory gout, on behalf of our collaboration partner, Sobi. We recently announced full enrollment for DISSOLVE I, the first of two clinical studies in Q4 of last year and remain on track to share top-line results from the DISSOLVE clinical program in Q4 2022.

What are some of the largest obstacles/hurdles associated with strategic collaborations?

Some of the largest obstacles associated with strategic collaborations include navigating the complexity of larger organizations and developing clear and consistent lines of communication across teams early in the collaboration. Product development is not straightforward and challenges always arise. Moving partnered assets towards commercialization efficiently and expeditiously requires an ability for organizations to quickly come to an agreement on issues as they arise in real time. By connecting the right people between organizations early on and ensuring a consistent dialogue between teams, many issues can be resolved quickly and not hinder the development of the asset.

How has partnering evolved given the industry has largely gone towards a virtual model?

Increased use of informal collaboration technologies such as Slack and Teams has helped improve communication between partners tremendously. We now can share our ideas almost immediately, get instant feedback, and work on multiple projects simultaneously while being in different locations all over the world. While these applications have helped us become more efficient, the pandemic has diminished informal interpersonal interactions which would have usually occurred over dinners or in person at the office. Greater effort is required to develop and maintain trusted interpersonal relationships with partners.

TFF Pharmaceuticals

What are the top three key elements of an ideal partnership/collaboration?

Our business strategy is a hybrid of in-house and collaborative programs with pharmaceutical companies, academic institutions, and government agencies, applying our Thin Film Freezing technology to improve efficacy, safety, and stability of current drugs by converting them into a stable dry powder formulation. While the key elements of each partnership depend on what the partner is looking for, our priority is to work collaboratively with partners who share the same vision, work ethic and drive, and an understanding of how we can leverage one another’s resources and expertise to make medicines safer and more effective in treating patients’ conditions.

How do you differentiate yourself from competitors when approaching large pharma?

Our platform has such versatile applicability across a broad array of molecules, including the ability to stabilize biologics such as mRNA vaccines, eliminating the need for ultra-cold chain storage. We haven’t come across any compound yet that we could not successfully reformulate, whether large or small molecule, vaccine, or otherwise, and that capability sets us apart from other companies developing dry powder therapies. By improving temperature stability of biologics, we can increase accessibility and enable rapid, scalable global distribution of vaccines to contain a pandemic.

What are some of the largest obstacles/hurdles associated with strategic collaborations?

As with any strategic collaboration, alignment on timing and level of detailed communication around a shared program can be an obstacle. However, we’ve been fortunate to work with partners who share in our goals, which has allowed for ease in providing investors timely program updates of our COVID monoclonal antibody collaboration with Augmenta Bioworks, as well as our other ongoing partnerships.

How has partnering evolved given the industry has largely gone towards a virtual model?

Collaboration in the virtual setting has really sped up progress of drug development. Despite the challenge that certain activities, such as laboratory and clinical work, cannot be done remotely, our team and our partners have been able to effectively manage our operations and continue progressing our programs during the pandemic. One upside of the virtual model is that it standardized more consistent and regular communications with our partners. As we look ahead to more virtual collaboration in 2022, I feel confident in the processes in place that will allow us to stay up to date on both our own and our partners’ progress.

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