Tips for Industry-Academia Collaboration

Posted July 24th, 2019 by Samantha Truex, in Biotech startup advice, From The Trenches

This blog was written by Samantha Truex, Atlas EIR and CEO of Quench Bio, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.

Some of the most promising and innovative research underlying biotech start-ups arises in research institutions.  It is often with those very institutions that we can best collaborate to advance such innovations.   Academic researchers are insightful scientific advisors in new areas of biology and are poised to assist in important, thoughtful breakthroughs in ways that contract research organization (CRO) researchers sometimes are not.

That said, interacting with researchers in academic institutions is quite different from setting up research with a CRO.  Whereas a CRO almost always operates on a fee-for-service basis with a timeline and intellectual property (IP) rights accruing to the client, academic researchers are generally working on several areas of investigation in parallel and have institutional mandates to share their research findings.  In addition to their usual needs to retain rights to publish and retain IP with the offer of an option to license, research institutions rarely agree to goal timelines and can have very high overhead rates that almost double the cost of the research.  Depending on the institution, their technology licensing offices can also be difficult negotiators with lack of sophistication about the value proposition of the research.

After interacting with over 20 institutions across the world in the last handful of years, I am pleased to say that most researchers I have encountered have innovative ideas with good intentions to pursue them thoughtfully and work together collaboratively.  I can suggest a handful of lessons learned:

  • Get to know the researcher, in person if possible, before signing up to a significant collaboration. The larger the commitment and more important it is to your company, the more important this becomes.  Things to consider:
    1. Is this research a priority for the researcher and her lab? Is there capacity in the lab to pursue it?
    2. Is the researcher responsive in the discussions of the research? This can be a good indicator of whether she’ll be responsive during the collaboration
    3. Does the researcher take confidentiality seriously? If she is sharing details of research she is working on with other industry collaborators, you should assume details of your planned collaboration could be shared, as well.
  • Ask the researcher to make an introduction to the technology transfer office as soon as you start on a workplan for collaborating to get going on the template agreement (e.g., sponsored research agreement) in parallel with finalizing the workplan and budget.
    1. If the researcher does not know how to navigate the tech transfer office already, this is all the more important since you will have to learn how to navigate yourself.
    2. Tech transfer offices run the gambit from impressive and efficient to slow and unsophisticated. It helps to ask about their process and expected timelines upfront.  It can also help to have the researcher prod the tech transfer office if the process is lagging.
  • Work together to lay out an expected timeline and priority of aims/activities.
    1. While the tech transfer office is unlikely to agree to any language guaranteeing such timing or giving any recourse if it is not met, the psychology of laying out expectations in writing in the workplan can be strong.
    2. Clarify which party is expected to drive each activity.
  • Assign someone in your organization to own the relationship with the collaborator and have regular calls or meetings to review collaboration progress.
    1. Set the expectation for these regular interactions in the collaboration workplan.
    2. Proceed with the calls even if you think the research has not made much progress. Again, the psychology of having to report out on progress can be a great motivator.  If you agree to cancel the check-in calls each month for months on end, don’t be surprised if progress is not made.
    3. Be willing to get on a plane and visit the collaborator if the research is high priority. This shows that the research is important to you and provides additional motivation for the researcher to make progress.
  • Often, the research planned with an academic collaborator involves innovative science and/or unique models that cannot be found at a contract research organization (CRO). If the research can be done at a CRO, it is worth investing in doing that – either in parallel with conducting it in academia or instead of conducting it in academia.
    1. A CRO is often faster and a cleaner way to get results since you will own the resulting data and intellectual property that may arise.
    2. Pursuing the research at a CRO in parallel provides validation of the outcomes.
    3. Pursuing the research with the researcher in parallel provides an avenue for publication by a recognized researcher in the field. That is often a desired outcome.

I have been fortunate in recent years to collaborate with brilliant scientists who share valuable insights and who are also delightful people, including Paul Thompson and Kate Fitzgerald at UMass, Kate Schroder at U Queensland, Sam Xiao at Case Western and Arturo Zychlinsky at the Max Planck.    In memoriam, I also laud Kerri Mowen, scientific co-founder of Padlock Therapeutics and a lovely human being.

Best wishes for collaborative endeavors that bring important therapies to the patients we serve.

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