Fierce JPM Week: Despite pandemic's challenges, collaboration in biopharma is 'alive and well,' panel says

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic's staying power, the biopharma industry has shown an ability to keep projects moving over the last couple of years. Collaboration has been a big part of the story.

By many accounts, the industry's willingness to join together to solve complex scientific problems has been one bright spot from the pandemic. Think the Pfizer and BioNTech mRNA vaccine partnership, or Sanofi's deals to partner on vaccine research with GlaxoSmithKline and on vaccine supply with Johnson & Johnson.

With those partnerships in mind, Fierce Pharma recently asked biopharma experts for their perspectives on how the industry will approach collaborations in 2022 and beyond. The speakers on the Fierce JPM Week "Collaborations 2022" panel offered a range of thoughts including how diagnostics will play an increasing role in disease management and how the industry's dealmakers will structure partnerships in the future.

Historically, pharmaceutical business development has "relied very heavily" on networking and face-to-face connections, Philippe Alen, Bayer's vice president and head of business development, licensing and alliance management for cardiovascular diseases, said during the event. That's changed, though, and the pandemic showed that the industry can perhaps move even faster and more efficiently in a "virtual environment," he said. 

"I expect that we will really continue to build on that speed, agility and volume of dealmaking that we've experienced in the last two years, and then even further accelerate that," Alen said on the panel. 

The Bayer exec sees several reasons biopharma collaborations will gain steam. In the coming years, Alen thinks more capital from "nontraditional sources" will come into the industry, he said, citing the deal by billionaire Richard Branson's special purpose acquisition company to take testing outfit 23andMe public.

Meanwhile, Alen thinks oncology will "continue to lead the pack" in terms of deal volume and value, but the Bayer exec believes "we're going to see more diversification into other areas." He sees precision medicine approaches picking up in non-oncology settings such as heart disease, and he expects "a lot more deal flow" in digital health, citing women's health care as an "emerging area."

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For her part, Roche's global head of diagnostics partnering Cristin Hubbard said she sees more investment in diagnostics ahead. The pandemic has "raised the awareness of the role that diagnostics play in the prevention and management of disease," Hubbard noted, so she sees interest in the field only growing from here. 

And on the deal structure front, Hubbard believes advances in "digital infrastructures" and data collection will lead to different types of partnerships between companies. As Hubbard sees it, pharma companies can borrow "from the inspiration of consumer and tech models" to build "marketplaces or open ecosystems for data and information." That'll require the industry's dealmaking experts to think differently, Hubbard said, but she thinks "we're up to the task."

The industry's approach to dealmaking has changed over the years, BeiGene's chief business executive Angus Grant observed on the panel. During the 2011 to 2012 time frame, he and others followed a "traditional licensing" approach to partnerships. Now, more expansive deals with "option to license" structures on multiple candidates give biotech companies "a lot of autonomy to deliver," Grant pointed out. If a company can generate "multiple hits," they can "do quite well," the exec said.

Grant, a 25-year biotech vet, also shared his thoughts on what makes tie-ups work. From his perspective, it's about whether the teams on both sides of the partnership "share a common passion" and whether they enjoy working together, he said. That's important, Grant noted, because the team will need to work through problems as they inevitably arise.

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"Even in the absence of being together at J.P. Morgan, running around the the streets trying to make meetings on time, even in the absence of face-to-face meetings, we've been able to close remarkable deals in the last two years and have incredibly productive collaborations," Grant said. That's in part "because of the common mission and vision that we have," he added.

"So I think what I've learned over my career in this industry, which is fairly long, is that collaboration is alive and well," Grant added.