Pharmaceutical companies and universities: shifting collaborations

For many years large pharmaceutical companies have successfully devoted a lot of their resources to position new drugs on the market. Nonetheless, they are increasingly looking to access new ideas to speed-up drug development. The most obvious external source for knowledge and expertise are universities. In the present environment the roll of universities is expanding, resulting in more collaborations. But what is the starting position, how have big pharma been collaborating with universities, what influences these collaborations and what kind of collaborative types are there? I have researched big pharma – university collaborations and I will present a few observed trends and describe different types of collaborations.

What kind of factors influence collaboration?

Over the last fifty years, the collaboration between pharma and universities was mostly a one-way street. Theoretical and preclinical research was done at universities while pharma backed-up clinical trials and commercialized promising new drugs, thereby gaining enormous profits. Due to more complex guidelines and increasing costs of drug development this is slowly changing, which opens the doors towards a more dynamic collaboration. Consequently, universities are already involved in the discovery phase, making the negotiation position of universities stronger (read: IP rights). Based on my literature study,  It is possible to order the factors that influence collaborations between pharma and universities into three groups:

  • External factors are aspects that are controlled by the external environment. A positive external factor on collaborations is public funding. Governments aim to strengthen the national and regional innovation capabilities and competitiveness compared to the rest of the world by financially stimulating collaborations.
  • Internal factors are dependent on the characteristics and leadership of an organisations. Size and age of the company are typical internal factors. Larger and well established companies have more resources to collaborate and are more visible. This has a positive influence on the collaboration between pharma companies and universities. However, accessing their resources comes with a price, they are less transparent than small companies and legal departments possibly influence the speed of setting up collaboration agreements, IP & licensing rights and dates and content of publications.
  • Relationship factors influence collaborations through interaction between the parties, one of them being geographic proximity. From a university point of view it turns out that exchanging ideas with the outside world (knowledge spillover) is more localized than  industrial knowledge spillover. Companies within a hundred miles radius of an university tend to collaborate ten times more than outside this radius (in the US). Furthermore, players in a localized ecosystem (Silicon Valley, Boston Route 128, Cambridge Science) are more likely to collaborate with each other. Another relationship factor is being in a consortia or not. Fact is that companies that belong to a group are more likely to collaborate. However, its innovative output dependson the composition of a group. It is still unclear if the public partner inhibits the innovative process or enhances it.

How is an organisation influenced by these factors?

The way companies collaborate depends on how open they are towards universities. Lazzarotti and Manzini (2009) described four modes of collaboration that define the openness of companies towards external sources.

  1. Open innovators are open to collaborate and share a large amount of their knowledge with different entities outside the company. Pharma companies that are open innovators typically have more co-publications with universities (or other companies) in scientific journals, aim at setting up open-source sites to engage with the external world or fund private institutions that focus on collaborations with universities.
  2. Closed innovators are not open to collaborate with different entities from outside the company. They focus on having all the needed knowledge and resources in-house generally resulting in a higher in-house R&D investments as opposed to open innovators. They do not have a large network of collaborative partners, the open access knowledge is low (e.g. in scientific journals that are freely available)
  3. Between open innovators and closed innovators there is a mixed field of innovators with their own strategy, called integrated collaborators. Their focus is on a selective group(s) of partners but they use the gained knowledge for multiple projects.
  4. The opposite of the integrated innovators are specialized collaborators. These are companies that have a high number of different partners but don’t exploit their knowledge for all projects.

Currently, the observed trend is that pharmaceutical companies move away from the closed innovator and adapt a more open collaborator strategy. However, a company does not have to fit exactly in one of the modes. Often, combinations of the four are seen, or shifts from one mode to another over time. What type of collaborator is your organisation?

What is Europe’s view on these collaborations?

The European Union acknowledges the importance of dynamic collaborations between companies and universities and stimulates this via the current Horizon 2020 funding programme. Many different calls to achieve this are available, such as Research and Innovation Actions, Innovation Actions, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme, Future and Emerging Technologies and Fast Track to Innovation. All these programmes stimulate collaborations between academic institutions and industry partners. Additionally, in the new and upcoming Horizon Europe programme again the emphasis lies on increasing public-private partnerships (PPP), in the so called ‘European Partnership Initiative’ and by letting non-EU partners participate in consortia. On the other hand, not only Europe sees the value of the PPP, also in national research councils this is a hot topic. For example, the cross-over programme of the Dutch research council (NWO) aims to strengthen the Dutch knowledge and innovation system with excellent scientific research.

What are the main findings of this research?

Collaborations are influenced by different factors either controlled by the initiator (internal), by its environment (external) or both (relationship). How open companies are towards external sources depends on these factors and can roughly be divided into four modes of collaborations. Pharmaceutical companies and universities have always been working together, however currently there is a shift from a more unilateral collaboration towards a bilateral mode of collaboration resulting in stronger position for the universities. National and international agencies understand the importance of these collaborations and try to enhance these by creating different collaborative programs.

The message is clear: collaborations with universities are more and more essential for innovation, this is recognized by both companies and governmental agencies. So, when will you start collaborating?


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