13 tips for fruitful collaborations between small innovators and big pharma

Thursday, February 04, 2021 |

BOB’s Client Services Executive, Bernie Piscopo, reflects on one of our sessions at GIANT Health that she chaired which explored advice speakers would give to SMEs and industry colleagues looking to collaborate. The session, entitled “Pharma collaborating with innovative health and med-tech businesses”, invited global companies to share their experience of supporting and working with start-ups and scale-ups.

A huge thank you to the below panel of brilliant speakers that took part in this particular session and shared their thoughts on how we can collaborate for the greater good of the healthcare system during a time of huge transformation.

Dr Naj Rotheram - Medical Doctor, Boehringer Ingelheim

Konrad Dobschuetz - Head of Customer Solutions, (Digital) Health Innovation and BIOME Lead UK Novartis BIOME

Dr Myles Furnace - Global Digital Health Partnerships Lead, Ipsen

Catherine Brant - Senior External Relations Manager, Novo Nordisk

Daniel Ghyssels - Head of Lung Cancer Franchise Europe & Canada, AstraZeneca

What advice do you have for SMEs looking to collaborate with the pharmaceutical industry?

Getting your foot in the door - the 4 ‘P’s’ 

1. Participate. It can be difficult to spark a dialogue with companies in the life sciences industry via email and LinkedIn. The sheer volume of messages received every week means individuals often won’t have the bandwidth to respond the way they wish they could. Their advice? Take a structured (not a one-size-fits-all) approach - seek and participate in industry challenges. A simple Google search will set you off in the right direction. 

2. Persistence. Keep trying! A ‘no’ now doesn’t mean a ‘no’ in six months. (A ‘no’ in one department also doesn’t mean a ‘no’ in another.)

3. Passion pays off. Be on the constant lookout for opportunities where you can profile your innovation on e.g. on social media - and be proactive in contacting communications teams at the companies you’re interested in collaborating with. Be clear and passionate about the value your solution brings. 

4. People. Take a good look at your networks. Do you have a way into a company via a mutual contact? This will go a long way in helping you reach the right person in an organisation. 

Landing your pitch

5. Refine it. Who exactly are you pitching to? Where is your revenue generation within pharma exactly - is it medical affairs or commercial, for example? Once you have honed in on this, refine it more - which bit of medical affairs or commercial? Think about the very specific problems you can help this specific audience solve innovatively. 

As important as having a top-line overview in your pitch is, having a clear understanding of who you're talking to, the patients they're supporting and the objectives they want to achieve will help your pitch land.

(Word of warning! Detail is great, but don’t get too fixated and bogged down by it when pitching - a tailored approach isn’t necessarily a heavily detailed one.) 

6. Translate it. When your audience understands the clear need for your solution, it’s much more likely that they will do everything they can to overcome any potential obstacles. Many of the successes seen during the response to COVID-19 has been due to clarity around the need for certain innovations. A big part of this is putting patients at the very heart of everything. How can you help their current pathway? 

7. Iterate it. Don’t feel like you need to have a final polished version of your service or product. A mature innovation may actually be much harder to slot into the ecosystem you’re trying to support. Be open to collaborating with partners, such as pharma, to define the problem you’re solving and co-develop a solution that makes a real difference. 

As part of this iterative approach, try to anticipate trends. That's no mean feat in healthcare (as this year is testament to) but the teams that can predict trends are usually the successful ones. 

What advice do you have for pharmaceutical colleagues looking to collaborate with SMEs?

From pharma colleague to pharma colleague

8. Take a holistic view. When a smaller innovator approaches you, really think about how their innovation fits into the patient journey. If it fulfils a need and has an impact, it doesn’t always have to deliver the complete story straight off the bat, you just need to be able to define where it will fit holistically and make a difference. 

9. Be open-minded. Start-ups and scale-ups are taking a completely new approach to healthcare innovation. It’s easy for industry to slip back to viewing things with a very traditional lens - particularly as this mindset has been embedded over the past few decades, where, in a sense, much hasn’t changed. 

But, as more and more small innovators are entering the mix, it’s no longer just about pharmaceutical companies. There are real glimpses of things pharma can now start getting involved with (and have) in areas industry wouldn’t traditionally, such as diagnosis and personalisation of care. 

10. Seek internal expertise. Everyone knows that pharma works within clear frameworks, and also why they are so important. But it’s important not to get so lost in them that you lose your way. Each company that approaches you may require a different approach to particular frameworks, and this can often move you in a new direction. So having clarity on how you will proceed with collaborations that bring benefits to all stakeholders will ensure you can both proceed and do it compliantly. To do this, find those people across the business that have this expertise to help you move forward. 

Wider industry advice

11. Redefine business models. For the most part, pharma companies have been trying to fit innovations into what they know. How can pharma support SME innovations fit into the patient pathway to bring maximum benefit? In a rapidly changing environment with so many elements, now is the time to start thinking bigger and re-define traditional business models. 

12. Re-prioritise. Regulators are extremely forward-thinking, but sometimes pharma is caught finding its feet on how to bring about new solutions that make sense on the ground. 

A way to help with this is thinking about how innovations fit into the healthcare world. Go beyond pharma and think about your company’s role in the system itself by approaching priorities as patients > healthcare professionals > healthcare system > pharma. That’s not to say this is easy to justify, particularly from a business case perspective, but this is the approach that small, innovative companies are taking so it’s important to ask - how can industry align with this approach? 

13. Embrace cross-onboarding. As an industry, there is a tendency to create and push a product that’s biased by beliefs within pharma. But, SMEs can teach pharma a lot - and there’s a whole world of innovations that industry is yet to discover. Have a clear vision yes, but allow for growth and learning in your process. Develop a minimum viable product first, then enrich and build on it through collaborating and co-creating solutions with external collaboration with partners. 

A musing from BOB...

As a start-up ourselves (a core team of six), we’ve been extremely lucky to work with brilliant teams from across the healthcare spectrum, including pharmaceutical companies, doing great stuff. 

We’re often so grateful for the support, guidance and flexibility these larger companies show to us at BOB. Things that may seem like a minor detail or a quick bit of feedback or advice from these big teams can actually go a very long way for smaller teams. For example, standard 60-day payment terms are often infeasible for small businesses, so small changes to details like this in traditional internal processes can make a huge difference to small innovators!

Ultimately, to move forward effectively and collaboratively, pharma needs to understand and respect the perspective of the SME and flex processes and procedures. Vice versa, SMEs need to flex and show understanding around pharma’s processes and frameworks that are there for everyone’s best interest. 

And one final take home for the road...

As was eloquently stated by the speakers’ in our session - “it’s not about the size of the organisation, it’s about the size of its potential.”

Thank you again to our panel of speakers for sharing their words of wisdom - we hope you’ve found this insightful. Watch this space as there’s plenty more to come from this and all of BOB’s other sessions at GIANT Health!

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