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How Alliance Professionals Deliver Value at Startup

Discussion Summary from Exclusive Executive Roundtable

There is a truism among alliance professionals—start an alliance right, or you will start it again in the midst of an erosion of trust and even conflict. As part of an exclusive executive roundtable discussion sponsored by The Rhythm of Business during the ASAP Global Alliance Summit in March, nearly a dozen heads of alliance management within life science companies gathered to discuss the challenges of startup and the value alliance professionals can and should deliver to their stakeholders during this critical phase. Their conclusion: Prepare your stakeholders for what could go wrong and set them up for making it go right.

Engage Early

Traditional research or asset-based biopharma relationships are different from most other alliances in that there is a distinct separation between the function that negotiates the relationship and the function that implements and guides it to realize the intended value. In most other situations, the alliance professional is responsible for the business development process and the ongoing management. That makes it important in biopharma partnering that the alliance professional responsible for implementing the alliance has input into the collaboration agreement and begins to get to know the partner once it is reasonably certain an alliance will be consummated. Typically, that is at the point of a binding term sheet.

Alliance management professionals have had mixed results in engaging at this point, but that boat now appears to have sailed. According to our roundtable participants:

  • “It has taken two years, but we are involved at the term sheet stage.”
  • “Depending on the disease area, we are involved in the pitching process.”
  • “We are involved—and we bring in the research contracting teams early to focus on any tech transfer.”

Our leaders shared many of the ways in which their early engagement prepares an alliance for success. “Getting the internal teams set up can require a lot of lobbying, so getting that done as you approach signing is helpful.” Having the governance committee membership ready to go by the time of agreement signing will also jumpstart an alliance, although as one participant shared, it can be challenging to do so if your partner is not also naming its members prior to agreement signing.

Because of the increasing complexity of many early-stage alliances, often involving new technologies and modalities that research people aren’t familiar with, convening teams to align on the plan is helpful. “We help the teams clarify roles and responsibilities,” explained one of the roundtable participants. “We work with our leadership champions to help them articulate and align on what they really want to see from the collaboration,” added another.

A Holistic Perspective

Getting that clarity and translating from the vision of the alliance to the operations while the agreement is being finalized gives the alliance professional insights to use in reviewing the whole agreement. “Looking at the whole agreement helps us see how it creates a whole alliance,” offered one of the alliance management leaders. Seeing how the alliance becomes more than the sum of the parts—and how the parts are supposed to interact with one another provides a window into potential risks.

The alliance management organization is often asked to review the governance in an agreement, but the roundtable participants highlighted why this should not be done without having an holistic perspective on the alliance. “It is critical to ensure the governance is properly designed for the work to be done—and it is often designed by people who don’t have the experience to understand what it should be,” according to one leader. “We also need to be able to transform the governance as the alliance progresses,” added another.

One reason that has been used by leadership for excluding the alliance management professional is that their review will slow the process of getting to a signed agreement. That has always been suspect, but as one of our participants offered, “Explain the time and cost of making requested changes now, compared to what it costs to do an amendment, later.” Enough said.

Communicating the Early Wins

The value of alliance management processes and practices is best described as managing the cost of time so that the inherent inefficiencies in alliances don’t erode the intended value of the alliance. That can be challenging to communicate, so we asked our roundtable participants to talk about what they consider to be the early wins from the alliance startup process that they can point to as key deliverables. Not surprisingly, they focused on readiness to engage:

  • “Having the team ready to go and be productive as soon as possible.”
  • “Articulating the risks we’ve already avoided because we tweaked the model.”
  • “Conducting an internal launch meeting with the project team and senior leadership to make sure everyone is clear on roles and responsibilities.”

Other leaders added on to the point about the internal kickoff meeting as an essential forum because often the agreement has very technical terms about what to share and what not to share. Clarity on this among the project team and alliance leadership early on can certainly head off one of those troublesome things that can go wrong in an alliance.

Final Words of Wisdom

As our hour-long discussion wound down, the assembled alliance management leaders offered a few other practices they’ve found valuable in the alliance startup process.

  • “Meet with your alliance management counterpart right from the start. Get to know their company and bring that knowledge back.”
  • “Sit with the deal team and understand what we fought for and why.”

As a final thought, one of the participants shared, “Step out of your lane. We all have other experiences. Bring those to bear. It will help leadership see you differently.” Wise words to remind us that successful alliances take a village to deliver and whatever insights and experiences the alliance professional can bring will only help prepare your stakeholders for what could go wrong and set them up for making it go right.

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