The business models for drug discovery have evolved in many ways over the past decade. One of the most impactful changes has been an increase in collaboration between researchers in academia and the pharmaceutical industry. Recently approved drugs resulting from such partnerships include Spinraza and Kymriah, both considered medical breakthroughs of recent years.
For academic researchers, the benefits of collaboration are obvious. Financial backing from pharma provides steady funding and increased opportunity for them to do impactful work. For researchers in pharma, there are benefits as well. Collaboration may begin as funding for academic research with right of first refusal to license any promising candidates that emerge. This helps pharmaceutical companies fill gaps in their portfolio at lower cost and risk. Although this model is the most common, examples of other types of innovative academic-industry collaboration include Takeda Pharmaceuticals with Kyoto University in Japan and Stanford University in the U.S., and Sanofi with the University of California, San Francisco in the U.S.
Overcoming the challenges of academic-industry collaboration
Although academic-industry collaboration models are proving successful in many cases, their development is not without challenges. Fundamentally, academic and industry institutions have evolved starkly different cultures that challenge successful collaboration. Here, I highlight three challenges to the success of academic-industry collaboration and offer ideas to overcome them.
1. Stepping out of the silo
Historically, scientists have chosen either academic or industry career paths, and once chosen, rarely do they switch tracks. This often leads to insular perspectives on both sides, and constrains communication and mutual understanding in collaborative agreements. To overcome these challenges, pharmaceutical companies may hire leaders from the academic sector into research leadership positions or vice versa.
One of the best-known examples is Merck's hiring of Professor Peter S. Kim from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001. A bold and risky move at the time, it paved the way for other established academics to make similar moves to lead larger research operations.
However, career mobility between academic and industry research environments remains limited. Programs that intentionally provide increased opportunities to cross-recruit talent between the two environments, or even provide short-term visiting researcher opportunities, would help build a pool of shared understanding and a common perspective that would likely fuel collaborative success.
2. Prickly intellectual property problems
One of the key points of conflict in academic-industry collaborations is intellectual property rights to the research outcomes. Pharma companies manage IP as an asset and ensure confidentiality until a patent has been filed. In academia, the focus is on publishing and sharing results to encourage further research, and has had little use for or awareness of patents.
Although academic institutions have been shifting toward greater focus on IP, the long-tenured cultural difference often leads to challenges for collaboration. To grow overall understanding of basic patent law within the academic research community, IP education should be incorporated into the fundamental science and technology curriculum for students. While academic researchers will continue to share their discoveries, they must consider their disclosures from an IP perspective to avoid conflict with planned patent filings by an industry partner.
3. Insufficient platforms to support open innovation
Open innovation is a model that allows multiple parties to share common data and other information that each can use in their own innovation activities. In many cases, this data sharing is critical for academic-industry collaboration. The challenge is that this sharing is most efficient when enabled by a technology platform that manages data hosting, structuring and security, as well as user authentication. However, building and maintaining that infrastructure can be expensive and time consuming, making it a difficult investment for many industry or academic institutions alone to justify. While some have partnered to build such a platform, those relationships are often fraught with political, legal and technology challenges that hamper success.
Large-scale platforms managed by neutral third-parties should be developed to provide relief from these barriers. If members could simply pay a fair portion of the cost based on their usage, and not get bogged down in the administrative and management aspects of the platform, the model would likely work far better. This would enable research teams to make use of common data repositories.
A common perspective through information solutions
Although these challenges may seem disparate in nature, a broader perspective is key to overcoming them all—and for that you need information. As a specialist in scientific information solutions, CAS can help researchers and business leaders across academic and commercial organizations gain a broad perspective on their areas of interest.
For example, with tools like SciFindern, you can search the scientific journal and patent literature to identify potential collaborators and recruits, and help collaborators across organizations gain a common perspective. In the future, third-party organizations like CAS will be able to leverage their expertise in scientific data management to serve as stewards for additional data collections and support open innovation initiatives.
Is your organization considering or actively involved in academic-industry collaboration? I recommend contacting CAS today to learn how they can help.