What does AstraZeneca look for in a licensing partner?

Rebecca Aris interviews Shaun Grady

AstraZeneca

pharmaphorum speaks with Shaun Grady, Vice President of Strategic Partnering &amp, Business Development at AstraZeneca on how AstraZeneca engages with licensing partners.

Are you curious to find out more about what pharma companies look for in a licensing partner? Shaun Grady, Vice President of Strategic Partnering &amp, Business Development at AstraZeneca, explains what AstraZeneca is looking for in a partner and what the partnering process looks like.

Interview summary

RA: Firstly, what does AstraZeneca look for in a licensing partner?

SG: It all starts with strategy. We have made partnering or ‘externalisation’ firmly part of the corporate strategy.

We take that strategic intent, and we develop strategies for our early discovery and early development parts of the business, which in AstraZeneca are called iMeds, that’s Innovative Medicine Units. There are five iMeds for small molecules. There is also our MedImmune large molecule biologics business. Then we have the phase III later stage part of the business which is called Global Medicines Development. For each of those areas we then develop a business development strategy, and a ranked list of targets that we would like to secure and bring into the business.

The question of what we look for in a partner is very much dependent upon the specific area of the business that you’re working in. It’s very much tailored to the fit whether it’s a platform technology in the early phases of our activity, or if we’re looking for a product to commercialise in emerging markets for example.

There is no one type of partner, in fact it’s a very rich and diverse mix of different partners, depending on what it is that you’re trying to achieve. We actually pride ourselves in tailoring the deals that we do to fit the requirements and identity of the partner, and the particular subject matter of the agreement. We’ve conducted deals in a whole variety of types and shapes, whether it’s licensing, or acquisition, or risk share, or collaboration, because we firmly believe that no two deals are alike, and the trick is to find the deal that fits the needs of the partner and the needs of AstraZeneca.

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“…every deal is different, it’s a mistake just to take a template approach.”

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We use a phrase periodically, ‘every deal is a snowflake’, so every deal is different, it’s a mistake just to take a template approach. You’ve really got to sit down and think through each transaction on a case by case basis.

RA: What disease area or treatment types would you say are most of interest?

SG: We look to do business development in each of our five areas, so that’s oncology, where we put a fairly major investment and discovery activity organically, in respiratory and inflammation, in cardiovascular, in infection, and finally in neuroscience ( CNS and pain). They’re our five core therapy areas, and we’ve got a small business development group in each of those teams who are dedicated to work with the oncology or the cardiovascular.

And then so that we don’t miss anything outside of our core areas, we have a group that we call the new opportunities group, which is a bit smaller, and operates as a virtual SWAT team type group. They look at potential interesting opportunities outside our five core areas for things that they think are interesting that we should progress and potentially bring into the company.

RA: At what stage of development do you usually engage with licensing partners?

SG: Given that we do deals across all of the value chain we have actually got a lot of strategic partnerships with academia and charitable institutions. Last year we did 75 deals overall, and approximately a third of those were pre-clinical and academic collaborations.

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“Last year the focus was on late stage development and on market products and brands…”

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They’re in very diverse geographies so that we’ve got good strong relationships in Europe. More and more we find ourselves doing those early research collaborations with universities throughout the world including China, Russia etc.

We did a number of interesting platform technology type deals last year.

We also recently announced announced a strategic alliance for the discovery and development of novel generation antisense therapeutics against five cancer targets including one early clinical compound with Isis.

Last year the focus was on late stage development and on market products and brands, which was the strategic driver behind the deal we did with Bristol together buying Amylin to expand the diabetes portfolio, bringing the so called GLP1s into the existing collaboration that we had. We also acquired Ardea for their gout programme, lesinurad, which was in phase III.

So we will do deals all the way through, from the very early technology origination, to buying companies with an established marketed portfolio.

RA: What does the engagement process look like?

SG: Again it differs. We spend a lot of time trying to proactively originate contact and we do a lot of desk work to identify people who have got assets that we could be potentially interested in, and we approach those people directly.

We also, like everybody, spend a lot of time at partnering conferences and symposia, such as JP Morgan earlier this year. The most senior people in the organisation are prepared to spend time attending such meetings, demonstrating the importance of partnering to the company.

A lot of the contact comes unsolicited, because we’ve been on podiums and panels telling people about the areas that we’re interested in. We therefore get a lot of unsolicited approaches.

And then what’s the process like? We spent a lot of time and effort last year trying to improve the quality of that process, and improving the experience that small companies have when they interact with AstraZeneca.

We set ourselves targets around how quickly all the people in BD will respond to emails, acknowledging receipt, telling the partners what the next steps will be, what the timelines will be, and then going back with a more substantive response within about a week, and then going back more fully within three weeks.

We’re really responding to feedback that we’ve had in the past, that it’s difficult to interact with big pharma as it’s all bit of a black hole, and that emails get lost. So we’ve made it our priority that we improve the tailored nature and timeliness of our response when working with smaller companies.

What’s really pleasing is as a result of that we’ve moved significantly up the league tables in the different partnering surveys, so we’re now top four in the BCG survey, and similar top quartile in the Silico survey.

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Figure 1: Research from the Boston Consulting Group:- http://documents.bcg.com/BCG_Licensing_2012-GENERAL-vFinal.pdf

One of the reasons we’ve been successful and we’ve been able to do what we set out to has been a much closer partnership and stronger working relationships with R&amp,D and commercial.

“The one that stands out right now is the collaboration with Bristol Myers Squibb in diabetes.”

Getting good deals done isn’t just about business development, it’s about everybody across the organisation, and we’ve now got a group of senior R&amp,D strategy heads who are dedicated to business development to strategizing, searching, and evaluating BD opportunities, and we work much more closely with commercial, so it’s much more of a team effort now.

RA: What would you say have been some of your most successful partnerships?

SG: The one that stands out right now is the collaboration with Bristol Myers Squibb in diabetes. That was put in place in 2006 when Bristol had two programmes, SGLT2 and a DPP4 in phase III development, and the collaboration has resulted in Onglyza being launched and commercialised globally.

Forxiga is now approved in Europe, and there’s a combination product Kombiglyze, which is a combination of Onglyza and metformin, which again is available globally.

So three important medicines for diabetics coming out of that co-development collaboration, which is a very pleasing result.

In addition, more recently, the ability to take part in the acquisition of Amylin, whereby their GLP1 products, Bydureon and Byetta, were included into an expanded collaboration, illustrates the strength of our collaboration with BMS.

People talk a lot about deals being innovative and creative, when sometimes I struggle to see where the creativity or innovation is, but I think people would agree that the Amylin acquisition together with BMS was really quite unique and it stands out as a very creative transaction.

RA: How do you ensure continued success through ongoing alliance management?

SG: We say that doing the deal, hard as it may be, is the easy bit, its after that when the hard work starts. There’s no point in doing deals for the sake of doing deals, it’s about bringing products to patients.

Like our competition we put a concerted effort into improving our alliance management capability. We’ve formed a group that’s in effect a centre of excellence, like a practice centre, who themselves manage the major strategic alliances that we’ve got, but they also have an accountability to make sure that we operate and manage all our alliances to a good standard. They produce tools, checklists, templates, training and health checks. They’re a bit of an engine room to make sure that everybody who is working in alliances has got all the support that they need to work on alliances.

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“…doing the deal, hard as it may be, is the easy bit…”

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Some of it is really just pretty obvious, like identifying your alliance manager early in the process and then involving the alliance manager in the discussions with the partners as you’re putting the deal together. That way the alliance manager gets to form a good relationship with their counterpart. Then when the deal gets done and the deal team leave town you’ve got that nice continuity and people pick up with the programmes straight away without missing a step.

We’ve got some really good examples where that went well, and one that we call out a lot is the deal we did with Rigel for fostamatinib, the rheumatoid arthritis compound, where it was important to move very quickly into the phase III trial space. Again we barely missed a step, so from the deal being signed it really was just a matter of a few months before the phase III trials were being initiated.

RA: What do you think is the future model for effective pharma partnerships and licensing?

SG: I don’t anticipate any immediate dramatic change. We’re all still working hard on the existing model.

There isn’t going to be one deal type that everybody deploys, it is going to be about being creative, and differentiating yourself as a prospective partner because of the flexibility that you show around the type of deal that you’re prepared to do.

Another important thing will be peer collaborations. You’re going to see the big pharma companies working more closely together pooling capabilities and strengths as well as co-funding these expensive late stage programmes.

Its more likely to be evolutionary, and company specific, rather than there being a big dramatic step change in partnering.

RA: Great, well Shaun thank you very much for your time and for your insights.

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About the interviewee:

Shaun Grady is the Vice President of Strategic Partnering &amp, Business Development at AstraZeneca.

What is the future model for effective pharma partnerships and licensing?