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Collaborate or Stagnate

Collaboration within companies is clearly vital, and these days big pharma working with biotechs is a given. Pharma companies have a long history of partnering with academia too – on page 10, University of California professor Greg Weiss reports that he has already had a number of calls from companies wanting to explore the exciting technology he has developed.

Unsurprisingly, collaboration between rival companies is much less common. However, in “Meet The Green Team”, green chemistry consultant Andy Wells draws attention to the “remarkable” increase in pre-competitive industry collaboration over the past 10 years. Why? To find leaner, greener manufacturing strategies. As well as joining forces on sustainability initiatives, companies have been collaborating on large-scale R&D projects (1) and working together to help develop new licensing pathways (2).

Collaboration – or at least meaningful collaboration – is by no means easy. Historically, pharma has had a propriety culture, not well suited to sharing knowledge. Many big pharma companies still struggle to be team players. A recent survey of biotechs shows the perceived ‘partnering skills’ of top drug companies lagging well behind their technical capabilities (3). If the biotech–big pharma relationship, with its clear benefits for both sides, can be difficult to manage, partnerships between rivals are harder still. Like a marriage, a good partnership requires hard work and compromise from all parties.

Ultimately, increased collaboration may be a necessity rather than a choice. The days of big pharma profits generated solely by in-house R&D are long gone, and perhaps that’s no bad thing. Done right, collaboration allows us to become more than the sum of our parts. It broadens our horizons, helping us look beyond the obvious to see new and creative solutions. In fact, what if we stepped outside the limits of the pharma industry altogether? GlaxoSmithKline did just that when forming a partnership with Formula 1 team McLaren. An odd combination? Not really. McLaren can replace all four tires on a racecar in four seconds – imagine the savings if pharma manufacturing could harness that efficiency.

There is no doubt that pharma companies can collaborate successfully. During World War Two, US and UK drug makers formed government-backed coalitions to scale up manufacturing of penicillin, saving countless lives on both sides of the Atlantic (4). Today, as well as conflict and disease, we’re facing new challenges caused by our reckless use of resources. If we can harness the collective brainpower, skill and commitment of this industry towards solving the world’s problems, we will all benefit.

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Charlotte Barker

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  1. C. Barker, “United Science Stands”, The Medicine Maker 3, 50-51 (2014).
  2. L. Baird, “Adapting to the Future of Licensing”, The Medicine Maker 2, 40-42 (2014).
  3. The Boston Consulting Group, “2014 Biopharmaceutical Partnering Survey” (January 2015),
  4. V. Quirke, “Collaboration in the Pharmaceutical Industry”, Taylor & Francis, New York, NY, USA, p. 114 (2008).
About the Author
Charlotte Barker

As an Editor at Texere, I’m working closely with our audience to create vibrant, engaging content that reflects the hard work and passion that goes into bringing new medicines to market. I got my start in biomedical publishing as a commissioning editor for healthcare journals and have spent my career covering everything from early-stage research to clinical medicine, so I know my way around. And I can’t think of a more interesting, challenging or important area to be working in.

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