Roche's digital partnerships flourish under live-and-let-live approach

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Roche has a long history of letting the companies it buys run somewhat independently, two company execs said. (Pixabay)

Roche has a long history of being relatively hands off with the companies it buys. And that way of doing things has served it well, particularly when it comes to growing its digital partnerships.

Through a series of key collaborations, the Swiss drugmaker has “realized we have to be more trusting in letting our partners execute more independently,” Tom Zioncheck, head of neuroscience, ophthalmology and rare diseases partnering for Roche and Genentech, said in an interview during last week’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.

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He pointed to recent gene therapy buy Spark Therapeutics as an example, noting that Roche intends to let its new asset run largely independently and “really be a center of excellence for us within the Roche group.”

There’s plenty of precedent. For Roche, that practice goes back to 1990 when it swallowed biotech pioneer Genentech and subsequently let it “run and flourish in a highly independent way for a number of years,” Zioncheck said, also pointing to deals with Foundation Medicine and Flatiron Health that have worked similarly.

While autonomy can be plenty important in biotech partnerships, it’s particularly key for partnerships focused on data and analytical tools, said Gregg Talbert, head of digital and personalized healthcare for Roche Pharma Partnering.

“Frankly, the broader that we see the tools are used and the more input that those tools receive from multiple sources, the more likely it is to standardize quality,” he said. And that means it’s important for Roche to not only avoid interfering too much outside its own collaborations but to help ensure its partners “will be able to thrive and benefit in their overall businesses.”

“We have to remember” that some of the personal healthcare companies Roche has partnered with “independently have this business where they are working with, in some cases, the pharma competitors, and so that level of separation is even more important,” Talbert said.

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And there’s precedent at Roche for that, too, he noted, pointing to the relationship between Roche’s pharma unit and its diagnostics division, which produces companion products for use with rival drugmakers’ therapies.

That, of course, doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a robust two-way exchange within the partnership itself, Talbert said. “When we look for a partner in the space, it’s very important for that partner and us to develop a kind of rapport—a relationship where we're actually learning from one another,” he said.