Kristin Schneeman, Program Director, FasterCures
Earlier this month, FasterCures hosted a workshop on “The Nuts and Bolts of Cross-Sector Dealmaking,” bringing together a number of the venture philanthropies in TRAIN (The Research Acceleration and Innovation Network) to learn from and share with their peers the actual strategies and tactics nonprofits and biopharmaceutical companies are using to partner, as well as how foundations can better find and fund the most promising, commercializable research within universities. It was a valuable boots-on-the-ground exchange of specific resources and ideas for further exploration among a cross-section of all the stakeholders involved in medical research – foundations, industry, academia, government, and finance.
The day began with a discussion of a number of nonprofit collaboration models, intended to demonstrate the range of relationships and activities that currently exists among foundations and their academic and industry partners, from building and managing academic consortia for precompetitive and clinical research, to providing “concierge” services for academic researchers interested in commercialization, to investing in small companies through a variety of mechanisms and co-funding with large companies, to nonprofit and virtual biotechs.
Subsequent sessions focused on sharing strategies for finding partners (“the dating game”); the nitty-gritty of negotiating relationships, from licensing and royalties to milestones and data-sharing; and finally, what’s needed to sustain and replicate these relationships.
There were far too many valuable bits of information to relay in a brief blog post, and we will be working on a longer summary of the discussion, but I’ll highlight a few key takeaways:
- Lawyers and tech transfer officers shouldn’t run the show, but should absolutely be part of the team to craft terms that support the goals of a collaboration and help trouble-shoot any problems that might arise. It is critical to understand the legitimate needs of all partners.
- Communication is key, and there are so many ways we can communicate informally that we don’t – e.g., sharing non-confidential information with potential partners, holding non-binding legal roundtables to talk through issues such as the distinction between commercial and non-commercial research, etc.
- Industry-quality project management is fundamental to keeping programs on track and developing an asset that will be attractive to industry partners.
- Collaborations need to develop legs of their own and not depend on individuals within companies and foundations to sustain them. Building in surrogate markers of success that show progress over time (not just that “research is happening”) can help expand the circle of champions.
There were also many ideas for actions that would be helpful in smoothing the creation and sustenance of these collaborations, including:
- More transparent information about points of contact within companies, nonprofits, and academia;
- Education of tech transfer offices about what criteria potential partners are looking for (other than the Association of University Technology Managers data points they have historically been judged against);
- An effort to require more sharing of data about “failed” research efforts (and perhaps rebranding them as something other than “failures”); and
- Working with the IRS to better define “program-related investments” in the medical research space (outside of global health) to increase foundations’ comfort level with making such investments.
One of the most important outcomes of the day was a collection of resources that participants brought to share with one another and with the broader research community. These included template agreements of all sorts; due diligence guides; publications on collaborative models, venture philanthropy royalties, and charitable investing; and much more. This treasure trove of new tools will be available very soon on TRAIN Central Station.