How to find partners
There are countless benefits that startups and smaller companies receive from partnerships with big pharma companies, but partnering is a strategy that we’ve often seen overlooked or deprioritised. While it’s essential to recognize and promote your core strengths, you should also be aware that there are resources, expertise and capital outside of your company that can help you reach your next milestones faster than if you were to go it alone. In fact, an analysis of development phase transition rates has shown greater success when partnering with a pharma company.
Biotech startups play a crucial role in bringing new, innovative medicines to patients, making it all the more important that leaders like yourselves can partner effectively. There are many ways to go about this, so we’re breaking down the process and providing simple advice here for all those who feel this is the right next step for their company.
How to find partners
- Do your research
Before you reach out to prospective partners, make sure you do thorough research. First, identify your companies of interest. Think about the companies that currently carry out R&D in the same disease areas as you or that serve the same patients that you intend to. You can search through market research reports, recent scientific publications, and conference reports to find the leading pharma companies within your desired area. Some databases can provide insight into this information, too.
Once you understand which companies are of interest to you, search through their websites and look for areas of R&D that correspond to your work. Some companies will even have a section dedicated to partnering, where they’ll describe exactly which opportunities they’re looking for.
Partnerships allow companies to tap into sources of new ideas and technologies, and they will naturally be more interested if what you are doing aligns with their areas of research.
- Explore your existing contacts
Don’t overlook the people close to you who might have contacts in other companies who can point you in the right direction. Warm introductions are often more effective than a cold email or phone call, and we’ve often found this to be one of the most efficient ways to build new relationships.
- Attend networking events
Biotechnology industry organizations, incubators, and accelerators often host networking events, which allow startups to interact directly with big pharma representatives, sometimes with scheduled one-to-one meetings. These interactions are not as high-stakes as if the startup were to contact the partnering team directly, so they are a good opportunity for young companies to gauge interest around their assets before making a more concerted effort to find partners.
It is still advisable for startups to research the attending companies to see if there is any potential for partnering but the goal can be simply to make the partnering team aware of the startup’s technology, even if you are not ready to partner.
- Attend conferences
Present your work at conferences that are likely to have representatives from large companies among the audience members. Reach a bigger audience and make your work known in a space that confers credibility. Conferences are great venues for serendipitous interactions, and you could meet an R&D or business development professional from big pharma who could bring it to the wider organisation’s attention.
Conferences also provide an opportunity to gain valuable insight into what these companies are interested in, sometimes with information that isn’t included on their websites or brochures.
- Employ professional help
There are business development consulting firms and other organisations which you can hire to do the research for you. They have experience and understand the market well enough to be able to find the right info faster than you could on your own. They can give you insightful reports and advice on the best next steps for your company.
For example, at Probacure, we rapidly find the partners that are most aligned with your objectives, and then we gather feedback and connect you with the best-matched companies.
How to choose the right companies to contact
- First, think about the “4 Ws” and ask the following questions
- Who are your partners?
- What do they want?
- Why do they want it?
- How do they recognize what they want?
These have proved to be crucial questions for early-stage ventures. It is important to know who your potential partners are but also to understand the deeper context of what they are looking for and why that is exactly what they need. Understanding the answers to these questions can help you make a more compelling pitch to the right partners, and can also give you feedback that can redirect your R&D strategy.
The first part of this article would have helped you to answer the “Who” part of the 4 Ws.
Following the steps below should guide you through the remaining questions.
So why do Big Pharma companies choose to partner in the first place?
- Think about mutual benefit
Companies seeking partnerships can have varying motivations worth considering; we’ve included some of these in the image above. The more you learn about these motivations, the better you will understand the true value of your company and its offering. With this, you can also tailor your pitches to each company and demonstrate how a partnership can benefit everyone at the table.
In addition, you need to carefully consider the stage of development of your candidate or technology and how it can benefit your potential partner’s pipeline. For example, if you are seeking a preclinical partnership, your drug might be effective in indications for which it has not yet been tested. Once it enters the clinic, though, the aims of the partnership are likely to be more clearly defined.
- Don’t be restricted by borders
Pharmaceutical innovation is becoming more globally distributed and partnership opportunities are growing exponentially, particularly in Asia. Partnering with an Asian collaborator can bring significant benefits, including links to large pools of patients available to recruit for clinical trials and access to new markets. China, for example, is accepting overseas clinical trial data and providing a chance for younger companies to get listed in the Chinese market.
Companies in countries like the US or the UK often overlook this and can even end up losing business if they lack foreign language skills and multicultural awareness. Therefore, it’s a good idea to a) track down multilingual contacts within companies you want to partner with, b) outsource certain tasks to professionals who are multilingual or based in the countries of interest, or c) invest in hiring multilingual employees.
- Think of timing
Timing is a vital thing to think about when considering a partnership. There’s often a trade-off between risk and reward. Sometimes waiting to initiate partnerships leads to greater gains in the long run, but it also means that you need to take on more risk and provide more investment in the short term. Alternatively, partnering early gives you access to resources and expertise, and allows you to share risk - just expect to give up a greater share of any rewards.
Another, more complicated, aspect of timing is aligning your priorities with the most widely recognised and pressing unmet needs. We’ve heard discussions about developing the right drug at the right time, but it’s not clear how to do that.
In our experience, it’s highly beneficial to at least initiate partnering discussions early in the development process. By building relationships with the right organisations, you can give yourself a better view of your options and make a more informed choice.
- Cast a wide net
Although most of this advice has been targeted towards Big Pharma companies, given that they are the most likely partners, don’t just focus on them. It’s not easy to know what companies’ needs are so always keep your options open.
Seriously consider smaller companies as they often come to decisions more quickly, are usually more flexible, and are maybe more open to taking risks on novel targets or mechanisms. Some people also argue that smaller companies will be more committed to your program, as they focus their resources on fewer assets.
The landscape of pharma R&D partnering has also changed significantly in the last decade. In efforts to tackle neglected tropical diseases, pandemic threats, diseases of ageing and the most challenging rare diseases, multiple governments, consortia, CROs, philanthropic organisations and product development partnerships have sought new ways to participate in R&D through alliances. Some of these organisations could make ideal long-term partners.
No matter the size, all institutions are run by people who, if truly interested, can have a substantial influence on a decision to partner with your startup.
- Begin your due diligence
Again, this can’t be stressed enough — do thorough research. Use publicly available information and insights from your networks to learn how companies do things and how closely they are aligned with your way of thinking. It’s important for all parties in a partnership to have a close overall fit, not just strategically, but also culturally.
Make sure to keep your options engaged and never say ‘No’ to anyone until you have a very good idea of who your best matches are.
The benefits of partnering for pharma R&D are countless — from accessing expertise to building long-term alliances and increasing your chances of success. Remember, when entering into a partnership, you are likely starting a very long relationship. These tips can help formulate your partnership goals and get started on that journey.
This article was written by Masha Sibinovic and Eyram Adjogatse. For more insightful articles and step-by-step guides, sign up for our newsletter.