Download a pdf of the discussion slides
Digital health has the potential to improve the health of millions of patients and radically change the way health services are delivered. In addition to providing benefits to patients and providers, the benefits for companies offering digital technology and life science products and services are substantial. It is a productive alliance of two innovative industries that not only innovate very differently, they go to market and partner differently. No wonder high tech and biopharma alliance managers have different jobs!
In digital health initiatives, the job of the alliance professionals is to bridge differences and find a third way that results in creating successful outcomes for the patients, providers, payers, and partners.
As part of the 2020 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, we gave a presentation on the topic and hosted a roundtable discussion of several technology and biopharma alliance professionals. The following are the highlights from our conversation.
Challenges for the Alliance Managers
Timelines for development, different language, business models, and organization structures are all issues that alliance professionals must navigate in digital health initiatives. “When can I expect revenues?” is typically the first question of a technology partner, according to a biopharma member of our roundtable. “When I tell them it could be ten years, they sometimes lose interest,” she explained. Technology companies are known for rapid development timelines and iterative, agile product development. Biopharma companies typically have very long development timelines and follow a methodical, waterfall development process. “It requires an education on both sides of the alliance.”
One of our technology participants brought up that whenever partners are in different verticals there is a level of understanding of the partners’ businesses that must be developed. “You have to start from scratch and understand the partner’s point of view. Be quite thorough so that you can raise awareness of potential joint solutions. Find the right people who have opportunities [for developing new solutions] and open up the eyes of others to see the opportunities our products can provide.”
Understanding a company’s business model is essential to know what matters to it, but is easier said than done. Biopharma alliance professionals are dealing with this challenge as they partner with niche companies within their own industry. “I have a partner that makes diagnostic tests. I tried as much as I could to understand their business model, but my counterpart didn’t understand what I was asking or why it was important.”
Finding “common language with shared meaning” is an essential success factor for any alliance. Another of our technology participants offered that “Titles are different—even the meaning of business development is different.” He continued to explain, “This isn’t about developing a new drug, it is about using technology to create a solution to a problem.” That’s the definition of opportunity. To be able to find alignment, one of our biopharma participants who is actively involved in partnering with technology companies says that, “I look for the people who understand biopharma and can enable us.”
“If we really work to understand the differences in our businesses and cultures, I think a lot of change will come that will help us move faster,” said a biopharma executive new to ASAP. “The first step is to find the North Star and step back to work out the differences, lay them out, and develop new ways of working.” This executive may be new to ASAP but her focus on finding a common North Star is exactly correct. The North Star describes what the alliance is intended to achieve and for whom. It guides resource prioritization, decisions, and helps drive alignment. Having a North Star is particularly important when the partners have different business models and strategies.
Not everything about COVID-19 and our next normal is proving to be negative. As we’ve abruptly transitioned from teleconference to video conference to replace not only face-to-face but also the ubiquitous teleconference, we are actually having more face time—even if it is digitally rendered. “Usually I would have multiple teleconferences in doing a deal. Now I feel I get to know my colleagues on the other side of a deal better.”
One of the advantages alliance professionals—and we as service providers to alliance professionals— have in this work environment is that we are used to working at a distance. We still deploy the same practices to bridge differences. “I go out of my way with a counterpart to be really open about our culture so that they can understand how things work. If the partner doesn’t understand our culture and the pace at which we make decisions, it can get frustrating and they may walk away.”
Crossing the Divide
Our final topic of discussion was the advice our participants would offer to a biopharma alliance manager looking to land a job in a tech company or to a tech alliance manager looking to land a job in biopharma. The consensus—just go for it! Here are some of their comments:
- Focus on understanding how the business works
- The more these two industries come together the better
- Reach for the unicorn. You can create it if you have experience on both sides. Everything we build today has a digital component
- The role of the alliance manager is to help your teammates understand your partner’s culture. As people roll on and off, make sure they are up to speed, Your understanding of “the other side” is extremely beneficial
- There are lots of opportunities—we are in a great position to take advantage of them