By Amy Duncan, Goldfish Consulting, Inc.

Small biotechs and large pharmaceutical companies, both staffed with highly skilled scientists, often face challenges when partnering on a collaboration. To understand more about pharma partnering, San Diego Entrepreneurs Exchange (SDEE) and LaunchBio co-hosted “Partnering Without Pitfalls: Building Successful Collaborations Between Entrepreneurs and Pharma,” on September 13, 2018, at in the Illumina Theater at The Alexandria-Torrey Pines.

This was an interactive discussion with pharmaceutical leaders Sunny Al-Shamma, Ph.D., President & CEO of Beacon Discovery, Jeff Calcagno, Senior Director of New Ventures for JNJ Innovation, Melissa Fitzgerald, Head Strategic Research Partnerships at Pfizer, and David Weitz, Head of Takeda California and Global Research Externalization. Marilyn Ferrari, President, Cesira, Inc. and SDEE events committee co-chair, moderated the panel examining what pharma leaders look for in a partner, how to navigate the partnering process, and lessons learned. Six tips for collaborating with pharma captured from the panel discussion are presented below.

1. Have Complementary Capabilities

Panelists agreed that there has to be a complementary nature to the collaboration between the small biotech and large pharma. Sunny said that because Beacon Discovery is a platform company that knows how to drug GPRCs, they are therapeutic agnostic and can fit in different pharma disease programs. Jeff said JNJ may be looking to partners to fill gaps, which could be understanding new target biology, the translational space, or needing platform capabilities. He emphasized that small biotechs need to approach the relationship with consistency, honesty, scientific credibility, and show that they can work well with others. It needs to be win-win.

2. Ensure Open and Balanced Communications

From his own experience in a startup, Jeff recalled how they can be overly protective and worried that pharma is going to steal an idea. Now working in large pharma, he noted that it can be challenging when the small biotech is constantly withholding. He stressed that big companies don’t try to steal IP, and in fact have constant reminders not to send structures or too much information. He advised once you have a CDA in place, to run with it.

Sammy voiced that if you’re spending too much time explaining what you do, i.e., what’s involved in the drug discovery process and educating a potential partner, there probably isn’t synergy. He recalled having spent months putting this detailed information together and getting nowhere.

David said to think about meetings having an invisible chess clock, and to be aware if you are spending 55 minutes of an hour meeting talking. You’re either spending too much time on topics they already know or taking too much time to educate them. Most importantly, you’re not leaving time for discussion. It’s in these discussions where you learn about the partner, what they need, where their limitations are, and what their process is, so you can shape the collaboration in a productive way.

3. Know How You’re Differentiated from the Competition

Acknowledging that the days of blockbuster drugs are gone, Melissa said that Pfizer now looks for first-in-class assets. They will look at best-in-class but need to know what differentiates your asset from others ahead of you. If first-in-class, then they what to know your path to the clinic and translational studies to support the clinical plan. They also want to know what you need help with to supplement any gaps. David added to that there is more competition out there than you probably know about and to be ready to get into a differentiation discussion. And to not differentiate on price.

4. Find a Champion

Sammy said that from a small company perspective, these negotiations can feel like forever. He said big pharma is usually working as hard as they can, but they are often challenged to coordinate communication among departments located on the east coast, west coast, and Europe. What’s also a challenge, but also very important, is to identify a champion within the company. Ultimately, a big win is if you can find someone who believes in the program or collaboration as they will start driving action from all the people in the company.

5. Ask About Roles and Timeline

David advised early on to figure out how you’re going to work together, determining roles and responsibilities, what you can live with, what obligations are put on you, and what you can shift to the partner. Incorporate what you’ve learned about the working relationship into the term sheet and contract. When it’s clear they are going to put a collaboration in place, Sammy asks the business development counterpart to walk him through what the process is expected look like. Getting that information about how long the process takes and who is involved is helpful especially when there are long lulls.

6. Be a Problem Solver

David also said to be a problem solver. Instead of going around and around on something that doesn’t matter, discuss disconnects and propose resolutions. Collaboration doesn’t start with the negotiation or when you sign the deal, it starts with the development of the working relationship. If you alienate the relationship leading up to negotiations, you might not get to the other side.


Throughout the process, Sammy says to keep a sense of humor and be flexible. Things take longer than you expect, so be patient. But with good communication, transparency, and honesty, you can build a strong relationship that may be the most important asset in closing a deal.