What makes a great Industry-Academia Strategic Partnership? Insights from GSK

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I left school to join the pharmaceutical company, Allen & Hanburys, part of the Glaxo group of companies. I fell on my feet and worked, more by luck than by good judgement, in probably the most successful pharmacology department that has ever existed. In my 20 years in the department, they delivered six life-changing medicines including the first ever billion-dollar p.a. medicine, Zantac. They achieved success through teamwork and collaboration; not only within the department but also across departments.

Following several promotions, I ended up running a research team of a dozen scientists in a neuropharmacology department attempting to find medicines for diseases such as Parkinsons, depression, schizophrenia and intractable pain. I was publishing the work of the team in scientific journals and presenting at international conferences. I was at that time collaborating with academic scientists in the UK, mainland Europe and the USA. We co-published our research findings and this external work dovetailed with, and underpinned, our internal research. I always considered that this academic collaboration portfolio was generating the additional evidence required to develop a scientific hypothesis in order to give us the confidence to take a molecule through to the expensive late stages of drug development.

As I approached my 40th birthday, I decided on a career change. I loved the vibrancy of the pharmaceutical industry – it was forever changing and evolving. I knew that I was a good researcher but that I was never going to win a Nobel Prize; and I considered alternative roles in pharmaceuticals; roles ranging from government and regulatory affairs through to being a Product Manager. Eventually I left my hectic scientific team of 12 and went from the lab to a quiet Business Development office where I shared a secretary with another BD manager.  My new role was to in-license technologies from universities and biotech companies. My relationship with the technology transfer offices of the universities was very different to my relationship with former academic collaborators. It was a very steep learning curve as I was now dealing with legal contracts, patent agents, and financial spreadsheets and continuing to interact with academic scientists but across a much broader range of scientific disciplines.  By the end of my 6-month probationary period I was thoroughly enjoying the role.

Over the next couple of years, my role evolved to include negotiations of research collaborations, consortia, studentships and interactions with a range of funders from different countries. There were multiple interfaces between industry and academia that required careful navigation (see Table 1). The primary function of the role was to leverage science and funding to underpin our internal research efforts; and what I had once done to leverage external science for my single research team I was now doing across the broader R&D base.

External science continues to fuel internal research efforts and is so important to my company that the Academic Liaison team has now grown organically to ten people and we negotiate around 700 academic collaborations per annum. Some of these agreements are very small and may involve little or no funding whilst others might be multi-party and multi-million pound collaborations; however, the successful collaborations all have one thing in common – they are all based on mutual respect and trust.

Table 1 : Multiple Interfaces between Industry & Academia  

– Research collaboration with one or more post-doctoral researchers
– Sponsorship of post-graduate studentshipsAcademic consultancy
– Provision of biological or chemical materials for research use
– Visiting chair positions for senior industrial scientists
– Academic sabbaticals into industry laboratories
– Sandwich students – undergraduate industrial placements

Ingredients of a Successful Partnership

All successful industry-academic collaborations have three essential ingredients:

  1. A budget – research is expensive and often costs are shared in true collaborations
  2. A programme of research – which clearly defines at the outset what each of the partners are to do during the collaboration and
  3. Consenting adults – academic and industrial scientists who respect, and usually like, each other

There are several criteria that the company consider when selecting collaborative partners and projects. Obviously, the proposed research has to be a close strategic fit to research being undertaken in our own laboratories. Usually the industrial scientist discusses the proposal with an academic to identify areas of common interest. The quality of the proposed science is high and usually is unique. There also needs to be a high likelihood of usual new information or technology arising from the collaboration; and the timing of the scientific outputs need to be such that they can help drive internal research decision-making. From a resource perspective, we would normally expect the external research lab to have the facilities and resources to undertake the work and for the funding package to be competitive.

The continuity of management of an academic collaboration is no different to the management of an internal research programme; the project priorities should be reviewed by the partners on a regular basis to ensure that the project priorities are being met and that the resources and budget are available to complete the work. If the early stage outputs from the project are not positive in driving the science forward then the industrial and academic supervisors of the programme may jointly decide to change the course of the research. This will usually involve an amendment to the legal contract governing the research.

What does Industry want from Academia? 

GSK have 8,500 scientists working in R&D and they publish their research in high impact journals. However, they generate only a very small percentage of the total science required to bring a new medicine into the clinic. Pharmaceutical companies need access to laterally thinking academics, their know-how and an awareness of developing technologies.

In order to address today’s big scientific challenges you need access to a critical mass of strategic thinking scientists. No single organization, either industrial or academic, is large enough to solve some of the modern day scientific conundrums. A multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving is required and this needs to be coupled with effective project management in order to be successful. As with any partnership, you need to put time and effort into nurturing the relationship. If you get this right then good outcomes are inevitable.

There are multiple benefits from effective academic-industry collaborations (see Table 2) for both parties. For the industrialist, a collaboration will often de-risk a research programme and may allow the company to monitor several competing technologies rather than investing in a technology that is ultimately superseded. For the academic, a good research collaboration affords them access to industrial scale technology and selective ligands that allow them to test their scientific hypotheses. Both partners benefit from the different culture and ways of thinking and working of the other. 

Funders of research, both national and international, also benefit from funding industry-academic collaborations. The research councils, medical charities and other science funding organizations all benefit from the rigor of the peer review and due diligence undertaken by the company prior to initiating an academic partnership. The company will ensure that the academic group is globally competitive and will usually work with the academic group to frame the scientific question to be addressed. This gives the external funder confidence in their own peer review process and it also leverages the industrial funding and allows more research to be undertaken. This win-win-win scenario allows industry, the academic and the funder to share the risks and potential rewards of the research undertaken.

Table 2 : The benefits of Effective Academic Industry Partnerships

– Access knowledge and new thinking
– Shared risks and rewards
– Harness other sources of funding
– Build global links
– Networking
– Recruitment
– Think longer term

The Drive for Impact

Developed countries are acutely aware that a strong science base will drive a knowledge economy and the prosperity of a nation. This drives a nationalistic funding behaviour, which focusses on impact and excellence.

The primary national drivers are to develop a skilled workforce capable of delivering innovations, which ultimately contribute to the prosperity of a nation. In the UK, the research and funding councils operate schemes designed to get academics at least thinking about the potential impact of their publically funded research. The Research Excellence Framework was first introduced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in 2014 (REF2014). Impact case studies were assessed on their “reach” and “significance”. GSK were cited in 152 impact case studies in the REF2014 exercise, some 40 more than the next highest company, Rolls Royce. The GSK cited examples were across a range of disciplines and emanated from 30 UK universities. In my opinion, this is a useful Key Performance Indicator of how good a collaborator the company might be and should be considered by academics seeking an industrial partner.

Other countries are evaluating the benefits of the UK REF exercise to the science base and the economy and some will consider similar exercises in their respective countries. Next year will see the evaluation of impact case studies for the REF2021 exercise; the impact-related funding has been increased from 20% to 25% of the total funding.

Points for Academia to consider then choosing an Industrial Partner

Academics should always undertake some due diligence when considering choosing an industrial partner. They should review the scientific literature to determine whether the industrial scientists are publishing in high impact journals; they should also surf the company website and annual report in order to glean useful background information.

There are several key questions that the academic should ask:

  • Does the company have a good track record for collaborations with academia? This can be assessed by searching for joint industry-academic publications in the literature and the number of grants co-funded between the company and the research councils.
  • Does the industrial scientist have access to knowledge or technology, which may contribute to the aims of the proposed research? Often the industrial researcher will have proprietary selective ligands or equipment that would not otherwise be available to the academic
  • Is the industrial partner well placed to exploit intellectual property arising from the collaboration in an efficient and effective way? For example, pharmaceutical companies will have I.P. professionals whose sole role is to protect I.P. arising from research.
  • Is the industrial scientists likely to make a significant intellectual contribution to the project?

What makes a great Strategic Partnership?

The most important factor in driving any collaboration is regular and honest communication which ultimately results in an appreciation of each other’s capabilities. This develops around a growing trust where effective Chinese walls are honored and respect grows. The science undertaken in the best collaborations is world-leading and results in high impact peer reviewed publications. There is a myth that industry always inhibit publication of their research results. This is simply not true. A brief review of recent journal publications will show how keen companies like GSK are to share their findings through scientific press.  It is in the interest of the company to have external scientists read, corroborate and extend their original research findings.

In conclusion, I know that academic collaborations help drive science in my own organization and certainly the industrial research accelerates research findings in the academic space. Academic partnerships are a win-win and GSK will continue to need academia for new technology developments & skills. I look forward to further academic partnerships if we are to innovate and be successful in taking new medicines into the clinic.

About the Author

Malcolm Skingle CBE has a BSc in Pharmacology/Biochemistry and a PhD in Neuropharmacology.  He has worked in the pharmaceutical industry all of his working life and has gained a wide breadth of experience in the management of research activities.  Malcolm manages Academic Liaison at GSK with staff in Stevenage and Philadelphia.