Enabling R&D collaborations between academia and pharma

Where will the next great drug discoveries come from? Chances are, many nascent ideas and pieces of early data are rattling around already in the minds, labs, and notes of academic researchers – which is one reason why pharma R&D groups work closely with biomedical scientists at universities and medical centers.

But in talking with academic investigators, we’ve found many of these collaboration opportunities are being left on the table – because most academic researchers have no idea what sorts of pharma resources are available, or how to access them.

To help close the information gap, we’ve created a directory of pharma-academia R&D collaboration programs (click here), and summarized some key takeaways below.

(Disclosure: FD works part-time with the Brigham Research Institute to support innovation and academia-industry interactions, and previously helped AstraZeneca develop its "open innovation" web portal.)

First, some context and history. There’s little doubt that academic and pharma researchers can accomplish far more together than either can do alone. Many academics have discovered new targets or pathways, developed novel assays relevant to human diseases, identified early drug candidates, or come up with ideas to “repurpose” drugs for new indications – all of which provide much-needed fuel for the pharma innovation engine. And adding pharma companies’ compounds, libraries, assays, and drug development expertise has nucleated many new R&D projects, and ultimately helped bring many new drugs to the market.

But recently, pharma companies have made major efforts to broaden the scope and impact of academic R&D alliances. First, the entire industry has more proactively embraced external R&D collaborations with academia, as part of a general movement toward “open innovation”. (This shift has also impacted pharma/biotech business development interactions – see here for a great recent piece by Bruce Booth on this topic.) Second, many companies have moved beyond ad hoc, single-asset collaborations with academics to implement a wide spectrum of approaches across preclinical, translational, and clinical science. And lastly, some pharmas have finally (!) developed user-friendly, informative web portals to help a broader population of academic researchers discover, explore, and initiate potential R&D collaborations.

Here are some highlights of the types of collaborative R&D programs that are available to academic researchers – see the directory for full company-by-company details:

  • Compound access: Some companies have “opened the vault” to make a broad range of compounds available for collaborative research, beyond their active pipeline agents – including preclinical “probes”, current pipeline candidates, and “deprioritized” clinical-stage drugs – and established easily-searchable databases.
  • Molecular libraries: Some companies enable investigators who have developed biochemical or cellular assays to access broader sets of compounds to identify potentially active leads. These libraries are often extensive enough to support high-throughput screening studies.
  • Drug R&D support: Several companies provide financial and/or in-kind support to help investigators validate targets and generate, vet, and optimize drug leads. Available resources include antibody development assistance, tool compounds, biobank samples, molecular modeling, in-house assays, and other technologies.
  • Specific RFPs and funding programs: Some pharma firms are more actively offering research grants to “crowdsource” ideas aligned with their R&D interests, and/or sponsoring “idea competitions” in focused areas.
  • Investigator-initiated studies and trials (IISs / IITs): Almost all pharma companies have developed tightly-structured online collaboration interfaces to ensure that R&D grants wouldn’t be used as commercial incentives (see here for background) – and thus, many of the web interfaces are optimized for compliance rather than user-friendliness. However, these sites are still a port of call (and in some cases, the only access point) for many pharma companies at which to propose collaborative R&D projects.

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We’re still in the early days of these expanded R&D collaboration activities, but they’re already generating value to academic researchers and companies. Researchers’ scientific programs obviously benefit in the near-term – but we’ve also heard from several pharma R&D execs of more substantive, longer-term research interactions stemming from these sorts of “open innovation”-driven collaborations. Particularly in a tight Federal funding environment, pharma could be an important supporter of projects and investigators aligned with the development of new therapies.

Similarly, pharma companies are seeing that expanded academic collaboration programs are not only scientifically productive, but can also enable new projects to advance into the clinic. Pharma companies today vary widely in how much they’ve invested in academic collaboration programs, but as more “success stories” and formal analyses emerge, we expect many of the less-active companies to expand their efforts.

Finally, although few earlier-stage biotechs invest in broad academic collaboration programs like these, some may be able to “right-size” them to advance their R&D agendas. This strategy could be particularly valuable for biotechs with proprietary drug development or screening platforms, for whom a more active academic collaboration program could help them advance further and faster than they could with only their own resources.

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We hope this directory will inspire academic researchers to explore pharma collaboration opportunities, medical centers to actively publicize these programs to their research faculty, and pharma and biotech companies to maintain and expand their support of broader R&D collaborations with academia. In the process, we encourage readers to leave comments on their own experiences with these sorts of partnerships, and send corrections, additions, and suggestions to info@pharmagellan.com so we can keep the directory up-to-date and accurate.

Click here to download the pharma-academia collaboration directory.

[Note added July 24, 2015: For more on this topic, check out Frank's related post in Forbes.]

[Latest version of directory (v 1.1) uploaded September 28, 2015]