SUMMARY Major pharmaceutical companies are showing increased interest in entering sponsored academic research agreements than involve very high levels of collaboration and are broad in scope. The most recent example of an ambitious, broad, and highly collaborative industry-academic alliance is Pfizer's $85 million agreement with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
Analysis
On November 16 2010, Pfizer announced that it had formed a broad, five-year R&D collaboration with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), potentially worth up to $85 million, for the development of novel drugs and therapies. The goal of the collaboration is to accelerate the identification of novel therapeutics and their advancement into clinical trials.  The agreement is the latest installment in a growing trend among major pharmaceutical companies to directly sponsor academic research that feature a high level of collaboration among industry and academic scientists. Similarly, in October Sanofi-Aventis formed broad collaboration with Harvard University.

In addition to Pfizer and Sanofi-Aventis, companies such as AstraZeneca, Genentech, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Novartis have all entered into agreements with research institutions that feature unprecedented levels of collaboration. Many of these projects involve joint steering committees, comprising researchers and sometimes managers or administrators from both organizations, which select projects for funding and monitor progress. Some programs involve scientist exchanges with an increasing number academic scientists working in the company's laboratories. The recent agreement between Pfizer and UCSF sets up an organization called the Center for Therapeutic Innovation, which is meant to promote collaboration among a network of scientists from both Pfizer and UCSF, and Pfizer plans to place scientists on the UCSF campus. The company will also share resources, such as its human antibody technologies and libraries.

A focus on translational research and medicine has been a theme of growing importance in recent models of industry-academic collaborations. Translational medicine is a framework for improving drug discovery and development by bridging the gap between clinical development and the results of basic and preclinical research. Both the Pfizer/UCSF and Sanofi-Aventis/Harvard agreements emphasize this approach. Increased collaboration among scientists performing basic research, clinical researchers, and drug developers will accelerate the shift to translational medicine in drug development and has the potential to yield great benefits to patients and society.

Pharmaceutical companies are hoping that closer relationships with academic institutions in areas of mutual interest will bring industry the innovation needed to prime drug discovery engines and fuel dwindling product pipelines. Collaborating with academia is but one of the various strategies that pharmaceutical companies are employing to build up their development pipelines. Other key strategies include mergers and acquisitions, the formation of early-stage alliances with biotech companies, and the rapid expansion into biologics. Some of these models are described in detail in the Spectrum reports Strategies for Building Biologics Capabilities and Franchises  and New Strategies in Academic-Industry Collaborations.

Innovation is thriving within academic institutions. Pharmaceutical companies can take advantage of this whirlwind of activity by directly funding sponsored research in areas of mutual interest. In most cases, the sponsoring company has an option or a right-of-first-negotiation to license inventions that arise from the collaboration. These arrangements allow companies to cast very wide nets and gain access to serendipitous discoveries. The pharmaceutical industry is betting that this strategy will enable companies to carve out new areas of intellectual property and foster the development of enabling technologies. Nonetheless, a major challenge in the commercialization of academic technology has been in recognizing and balancing the competing interests and very different missions of academia and industry. Partners need to carefully craft responsible agreements that both protect academic integrity and promote the prompt commercialization of useful technology.

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