Alliance Management Expertise, Partnering Frameworks and Tools, Collaborative Leadership

How the AbbVie-BioArctic Partnership Executes Collaboratively
1. Partnering Guide / July 7th, 2020     A+ | a-
This is Part Two of a three-part series about an exemplary research collaboration between global biopharmaceutical giant AbbVie and BioArctic, a research-intensive Swedish biopharmaceutical company to develop antibodies (immunotherapy) based on promising science discovered by BioArctic that could stop progression of the debilitating Parkinson’s disease (PD). The partners wish to share their experiences so that both their companies and others may benefit. The Rhythm of Business was engaged after their collaboration had achieved its primary objective to help the partners examine their alliance, identify repeatable practices, and tell their story. Read Part One The Making of a True Collaboration.

Getting to “Happy-Happy”

The synergy equation of 1+1=3 is an axiom of partnering, implying that the goal is to create value that cannot be achieved alone. Sweden’s BioArctic takes it a step further, looking to achieve the state of “happy-happy” with their partners. This next generation of the classic win-win focuses on “satisfaction, relationship, the cooperation, and the future.”[1] It is a way of getting to an agreement that is open, transparent, non-competitive, and assumes that each party gets what it wants by helping the other parties to the relationship get what they want. This “give and get logic” is the essence of collaboration; core to how to create, deliver, and capture true value in an alliance. As BioArctic’s project leader explains, “It is important to listen to the partner and understand what they need to get to the happy-happy for the alliance.”

Our last post introduced readers to this successful research collaboration between AbbVie and BioArctic, explaining some of their practices in the initial phases of the alliance. In this post we’ll recount some of the key actions the partners took during the operational phase of the alliance to get to happy-happy and achieve the North Star—in-licensing the antibody for development by AbbVie.

Moving into Operations

The design phase and the alliance kickoff meeting set the tone. The relationships and trust that were built, together with detailed workplans allowed the work package teams to immediately and effectively execute their plans. The high level of interaction between the partners continued into the operational phase. According to one of BioArctic’s work package leaders, “This was different from other collaborations. You usually wait until formal governance meetings with senior management to share results. Here we could really share between scientist and disciplinary experts. We started with bi-weekly meetings then moved to every three weeks. But we would interact in between meetings, too.” As a result, “When we came to the face-to-face meetings (the formal governance meeting) we had already talked through the issues and we are aligned.”

The frequency contributed to openness and a safe environment to experiment and try out ideas. “We could talk about exciting data, even though data might be preliminary and required confirmation. We were setting up new methods so it was important to be really open.” This sharing about how the research would be carried out occurred, even though BioArctic was the decision maker. They did not have to engage with AbbVie and AbbVie did not have to devote time and resources—but they both knew that a lesser degree of engagement would not get them to a successful outcome. “Even if we were the one to make the decision, we were keen to let them know what we were doing. It was important to let them know when studies failed. We wanted them to know we were listening and incorporated their ideas. We seldom made a decision to move forward without AbbVie’s consent,” explained one of the work package leaders. It is behaviors and actions like these that let a partner know they are being listened to, their needs considered, and that lead to happy-happy.

Tackling Challenges and Solving Problems Collaboratively

The strength of a partnership matters most when it is tested by challenges and problems. By definition, partnerships to advance science will run into their share of issues and potentially fail, no matter the level of trust, respect, and collaborative working between the partners. One of the most effective means to be prepared for these challenges is to have a proactive risk identification and management strategy and to address them transparently and directly.

Risk can be described as the potential events that will prevent the partnership from achieving its desired outcomes. AbbVie’s alliance management initiated an internal meeting to identify the key risks to the potential in-license decision. At that meeting, it became clear that due to an evolution of the regulatory environment, a biomarker strategy was on the critical path to a favorable decision, but that had not been clearly communicated to BioArctic. At the next governance meeting it was discussed forthrightly. “After all, we can’t hold our partner accountable for addressing a risk if they aren’t aware of this risk!”

Shifting Priorities, Shifting Resources

During the discussion at the governance meeting, “It became clear the parties held different views of the deliverables in this area.” Because of the strength of the relationship they were able to openly discuss AbbVie’s need and BioArctic understood it. Equally, AbbVie understood that identifying a clinically translatable biomarker was a high hurdle—and that it had not been built into the development plan to the level of reliability now being requested.

According to the work package leader, “Gunilla (BioArctic CEO Osswald) said I would get the resources I needed.” Researchers, including external support were shifted to the effort, although no additional funding was requested. “AbbVie understood we listened and would mitigate the risk for them with a really quick response—all of a sudden, they saw I had more people.” AbbVie did appreciate the effort – and also put additional resources to it that they were not required to. “Our partner did what we would have done and that is the best you can do!” explained AbbVie.

The Picasso

Another key challenge the partners worked together to overcome was the CMC (chemical, manufacturing, controls) release of the drug substance to AbbVie from the third-party manufacturer BioArctic engaged. The process would be subject to an AbbVie quality audit—and the more the partners discussed it through a series of governance committee meetings and emails, the more it became apparent that the partners did not have the same understanding of the process.

A two-day, in-person meeting was scheduled to work it through. “It seemed like a lot of time, but it was what was needed. We came to an aligned understanding. The process was so complicated it came to be known as the ‘Picasso or the New York subway map’ within BioArctic.” The quality audit of the process was successfully completed seven months after this meeting. “Getting the CMC teams from AbbVie and BioArctic together with AbbVie quality personnel was the turning point for understanding this very complex way forward.” We wonder what it would take to achieve the same alignment today when face-to-face includes an Internet interface. Two days might not be enough.

We’re the Barca Collaboration Team

In a successful collaboration an outsider that steps into a meeting cannot tell which company the meeting participants work for. This “one-team” or “entity” mindset informs thinking, behavior, and actions and is driven by the focus on the North Star of the alliance. The AbbVie-BioArctic alliance—known as the Barca Collaboration—understood and acted upon this principle. Even before they were officially partners, they referred to “our program.” When introducing himself during a governance committee meeting, AbbVie’s project lead said he worked for BioArctic! Indeed, he did—and BioArctic’s project lead worked for AbbVie in addition to the companies that employed them because that mindset is needed to succeed.

The one-team mindset is invaluable when approaching third parties who become essential contributors to the alliance. AbbVie and BioArctic approached the CMC partner referred to above together to present a united front. They also approached a contract research organization (CRO) together so that they could design the best possible animal model of Parkinson’s Disease.

The one-team or entity mindset helps teams coalesce around their patient-focused purpose and ignore parochial considerations that distract from the mission. At the end of the day, patient-focused missions always serve the corporate interest. Importantly, they attract the best and brightest talent without whom missions are impossible to achieve. “Great teams are hard to find. I found one in the Barca Collaboration team,” enthused one of the project leads.  

Up Next: The Payoff—How AbbVie and BioArctic’s collaboration helped create greater value and overcome alliance risks. Watch for our next post in a few weeks.
[1] Åge, Lars Johan, Happy Happy, Volante, 2020 (In Swedish, quote excerpted from
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