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

Malcolm Skingle

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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