Academic-industry partnerships — are we there yet?

Last Updated on May 14th, 2018 by Sharon Johnatty

The current climate for research funding in academia, coupled with unmet public health needs and the low rate of return on research investment by industry, highlight the need for academic-industry partnerships, and a shift in what for decades was thought of as a ‘clash of cultures’.

Academic science is driven by education, intellectual curiosity and discovery, while the mission of industry is translational research, commercialization and profit. Academic scientists share their findings with the wider scientific community, while industry for obvious reasons tends to be reticent about this. The wall separating these cultures was first breached by university engineering and computer sciences sectors, leading to patenting, licencing and royalty income by major research universities.

A similar process has been occurring in the last 2–3 decades in the biomedical sciences, with adoption by many leading universities of a “20% rule”, encouraging faculty to engage in extramural activities with industry one day a week. Although such alliances have been viewed as productive overall, concerns continue to abound, including conflicts of interest, loss of public trust, increased workload for institutional review boards, and lower than expected financial return from licencing agreements and royalties.

Academics who are driven by ‘pure motives’ are currently facing decreased government funding for research and pressures to link up with industry. In commenting on innovation in Australia at a press conference in 2015 at Miraikan, Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: 

“…we’re adding another criterion for success in achieving grants which is to demonstrate the degree of collaboration that you’re undertaking with business, with industry, so you can add “publish or perish” or perhaps “collaborate or crumble” as well.”

Recognizing the value of partnerships between industry and academia is not a one-way street. High quality research tracked by the Nature Index show that almost 90% of articles authored by corporate institutions are in collaboration with academic institutions, while only 2% of high-quality research come from the corporate sector. Partnerships between corporate and academic institutions have more than doubled since 2012 when tracking by Nature Index began, and half of them are in the life sciences.

Collaborations between academia and industry that are undertaken to address complementary parts of a research question can improve the publication power of the program. For the corporate side of the partnership, it means attracting and retaining top-tier scientists, which ultimately adds to the credibility of the research. A recent example is the 2013 collaboration between the Walter and Eliza Hall Medical Research Institute in Australia, and Genentech in the US, that led to the development and approval of venetoclax, a potent new therapy for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

The post-genome period and the prospect of new therapies have also helped to foster academic-industry partnerships. In 2016 AstraZeneca launched an integrated genomics initiative based in Cambridge, UK. This collaboration with The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and the Institute for Molecular Medicine in Finland will focus on discovery of new drug targets and biomarkers across Astrazeneca’s main therapy areas. Professor David Goldstein, renowned for his research on genetics of disease and pharmacogenetics, and the director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine at Columbia University, is leading Astrazeneca’s ambitious 10-year genomics initiative.

It is also no secret that many academics in top positions with successful careers have been poached by pharmaceutical giants due to the growing need for innovation. Many academics who made the switch did so, not because of the prospect of better remuneration, but because advances in technology and the emphasis on translational research have made it particularly attractive to partner with industry where developing new therapies is a ‘hard’ endpoint. It is also the difference between research that may eventually help people, versus developing therapies that directly benefit people.

Such moves are not for everyone, because for some academics the greater motivation may be preclinical research and the joys of discovery. For others who want to see their innovations brought to fruition, the attraction to industry also depends on whether the pharmaceutical company is a good fit, and academic scientists can continue to espouse their academic ethos. An example of this was Dr Mark Fishman, who was chief of cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital prior to accepting the top job at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. Fishman made a point of recruiting academic researchers because he liked their way of thinking.

“When you’re in academia, you have to develop critical thinking, and your ability to survive depends on your speaking and writing well and defending clearly what it is you want to do. The entrepreneurial spirit and culture of survival in academia is quite relevant to getting things done [in business]. (Fishman, Novartis)

Following retirement, Fishman was succeeded in 2016 by Dr Jay Bradner, a talented and innovative physician-scientist from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School. Under their leadership, Novartis has forged many more alliances with academia, and reported 2017 as a landmark year for innovation.

As with most collaborations and partnerships, academic-industry partnerships can work if there is an alignment of common goals, free and open communication, and trust between the parties in sharing ideas and data. The common ground between the two parties is identifying ‘druggable’ candidates in pre-clinical research that leads to the development of novel therapies. The divergence of academia and industry arises mainly in their respective approaches to achieving this endpoint.

Although many academics report their research in publications or grants, when it comes to therapeutic potential, their focus tends to be mainly on understanding a previously unknown biological mechanism or the role of a molecule in the disease process. Industry scientists or ‘drug hunters’ however, tend to be more focused on whether a specific molecule involved in the disease pathway can be effectively targeted for therapeutic purposes. Academic scientists may also be concerned about intellectual property and the risk of revealing promising results prior to publication for fear of ideas being scooped. There are also well-founded concerns that industry involvement may mean delayed publication and a tendency that they will ‘drop the ball’ in the face of negative results.

At a recent “Bridging the Innovation Gap between Academia and Industry” event held in New York, panelists Dr Barbara Dalton, Director of the Pfizer Ventures Investments team, and Teri Willey, Vice President of Business Development at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, provided some insights into traits needed to build a successful partnership:

  1. Speak and write for the general population. A common complaint about scientists is that they do not explain science in a way that helps the general population understand what they are doing. The litmus test is whether you can tell your mother or grandmother—assuming they are not also scientists—what you are doing.
  2. Good salesmanship. Scientists may have great ideas and may be doing ‘cutting-edge’ science, but they need to be able to sell their project. That means not only speaking and writing clearly, but developing a good ‘sales pitch’ and being able to persuade the funding organization or industry partner that they are on the right track with their project without crossing the line into ‘used-car salesman’ territory.
  3. Leadership skills. Some scientists are more suited to leadership than others and can provide persuasive arguments in support of commercialization of project. Such individuals should be identified at the institutional level and supported as ‘business agents’ for liaising with industry partners, while maintaining their role in supporting the researcher whose work they are promoting.
  4. Mutual appreciation of value. This involves striking a balance on more than just the financial aspects of the partnership. ‘Value’ varies with each entity, and can be one of the most difficult aspects of negotiating a partnership, but it is critical to success.

Dr Dalton also recommended investing in ‘entrepreneurs in residence’—people who have had experience with commercialization and can facilitate transitioning projects from the laboratory to a commercial sponsor.

Life sciences companies have fallen behind the technology sector and are facing lost opportunities by their reticence to share knowledge. The SEMATECH story, a research consortium formed in the mid 1980’s of fourteen computer chip makers in the US semiconductor industry, has become a model of how open innovation and drawing on the knowledge of your peers can transform an industry. Facing tough competition from Japan, this alliance banded together to solve shared problems and establish standards for chip design and manufacturing. Today US producers have not only regained their footing, they control half of the global semiconductor market.

Pharmaceutical companies have increased research spending by as much as 287% in the last two decades, and are facing lower revenues from expiring drug patents and longer time frames to bringing new therapies to market. At the same time there are many disease conditions with growing healthcare needs.

Although there are some very successful industry-academia partnerships, there is still a significant need for cooperation between academia and industry. One such effort is the Academic Drug Discovery Consortium which began in 2012. This collaborative network of academic and industry scientists, philanthropic and government organizations across 16 countries aims to share technologies related to drug discovery, and provide a platform for engaging with the life sciences industry.

If successful, academic-industry collaborations represent a move in the right direction, and may be the light at the end of the shrinking drug pipeline that could lead to improved translational research, greater innovation, and the much needed development of new therapies.

At SugarApple Communications, we support ethical scientific endeavours in academia, industry and government sectors. Let us help you find the best way to communicate your research. Get in touch today and let’s talk.  

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