One of the few silver linings of the Covid pandemic is that the advancement of web conferencing platforms has made it so much easier to connect with people around the globe. We at The Rhythm of Business have taken advantage of the technology, allowing us to work with alliance managers in Asia. It is unlikely this ever would have happened if we had to travel to deliver our services. These experiences opened our eyes to the fact that concurrent with a surge in life sciences in the region, there has also been an increase in the demand for alliance management and alliance managers. We decided to find out what’s keeping these alliance professionals up at night.
As part of Jan’s role as the chairman of the Association of Strategic Alliance Professional’s (ASAP) editorial committee, we convened a roundtable discussion of about two dozen biopharma alliance managers from across the Asia Pacific region. They represent global pharmaceutical giants, regional players engaging in the full lifecycle of therapeutic development and commercialization, specialists in regional commercialization, and a national agency charged with supporting industry-academia partnerships. What’s keeping them up at night proves yet again that alliance management is a role unlike most any other because of the scope of its purview and the diversity of its responsibilities.
Focusing on Fundamentals
Some of the alliance management basics that are top-of-mind for our roundtable participants will be familiar to all ASAP members:
- Ensuring there is real alignment on the true value proposition of an alliance and understanding how that relates to their company’s strategic priorities
- Getting good decisions made in a timely manner
- Balancing the needs of partners and internal requirements
- Building relationships and being the connector and interpreter between partners, helping them understand each other’s business and culture, and overcoming language barriers to build “common language with shared meaning,” as we like to encourage
- Ensuring that non-Asia partners understand the differences in regulatory requirements, reimbursement paradigms, and the tendering processes in different countries
- Meeting contractual obligations—or perhaps needing to find work arounds when current economic conditions don’t allow business to be done exactly as was contracted
In addition to partnership issues, several participants talked about some of the business issues they are currently addressing. These include limits to overseas travel due to budgetary constraints, corporate policies, and government restrictions, as well as inflationary pressures. Also of concern is the war in Ukraine, which has interrupted many clinical trials and contributed to inflation.
Changes in business practices during Covid were a hot topic. Perhaps most notable—and something we are seeing in many alliances—is the shift to digital or omnichannel engagement with healthcare professionals. The pharmaceutical detail has been and continues to be redefined. In many collaboration agreements, there are requirements for a certain number of details to be performed. When the agreement was negotiated, it was assumed those would be face-to-face sales calls. That may not be the case anymore, so many alliance managers, not just in Asia, are involved in redefining what gets counted as a detail, reframing reporting, and working to ensure that their alliance’s intended economic model remains intact.
One roundtable participant talked about how part of his job is to teach his alliance teams to behave like alliance managers. By that, he means making sure they know how to engage with partners, gain common understanding, to work through differences, and diffuse tensions. Others discussed clarifying for stakeholders the differences between business development, alliance management, and project management roles. That can be particularly challenging when alliance management sits within business development—or when it is a shared responsibility, as often can be the case in regional or country-specific roles.
Alliance managers have to carefully define their role so that stakeholders understand both what is in and what is out of scope. This varies greatly depending on the portfolio and the resources available. One participant serves as the general manager of the business with the partner, as well as being the alliance manager. His challenge is to balance those roles, which can be in conflict with each other.
The growth of partnering across Asia, including the expansion into the development of novel drugs, has led to a greater need to recruit people into alliance management who appreciate the challenges of the upstream component of the business and who can speak the language and recognize issues related to the science and to clinical trials. Where to find these people—who also must have the mindset to build and retain relationships—is keeping some of our participants up at night.
The Return of Face-to-Face
Covid has taken a toll on alliances between lockdowns, limited travel, and the rise of remote work. A common theme among participants is the need to build or rebuild relationships that have suffered from the lack of face-to-face interactions. Building trusting, purposeful, and mutually beneficial relationships is essential to alliances, not as an end in and of itself, but because you need those relationships to build the in-depth understanding of your partner that allows the alliance manager to have the tough conversations. Having that in-depth understanding and ability to have transparent conversations is also what allows an alliance professional to utilize the power of positive influence—to help your partner help you so that you can help them—whereby you both succeed.
Many of our participants are prioritizing face-to-face meetings as we close out 2022 and move into 2023. There are many alliances that were started over Microsoft Teams or Zoom where team members have never had the opportunity to share a meal or have a casual conversation about each other’s reality. Getting together and making sure the partners understand each other’s goals, reaffirm the strategic value proposition of their alliance, and talk honestly about challenges that have emerged is a top priority not only for our roundtable participants, but for alliance professionals around the globe.
The biopharmaceutical industry in the Asia Pacific region has seen a shift from primarily producing generics to embracing the development of innovative technologies. Big pharma companies have been drawn to leading hubs of activity such as Singapore, Taiwan, Shanghai, Melbourne, and New Zealand. In addition to the presence of big pharma R&D centers, startup activity has been strong, spurred by top-flight universities, proactive government policies, and capital availability. Bioclusters are forming and well-capitalized Asia-based companies are succeeding in bringing advanced technology drugs to market in the West as well as in Asia.
We expect that the practice of alliance management within Asian life science companies will continue to grow and evolve to reflect the unique nature of the many Asian cultures and business environments. We suspect this was only the first of many such roundtables and valuable exchanges of insights and experiences among alliance professionals in the region.