Partnering Out a Program or Technology

Designing and executing a partnering campaign, like other business activities, benefit from proactive preparation informed by the full landscape of what is to be done.  Here is a brief overview.

Strategy

If a company has the funds, expertise and bandwidth, it is generally preferable to develop a product candidate further to a point of higher valuation rather than partner.  In contrast, it may make sense to partner a technology platform early and often to validate the technology.  A deal is a means, not an end; a company should be clear about what the deal and its terms will do for its corporate development.

Designing the Campaign

A deal very rarely ‘just walks in the door’.  A proactive partnering campaign incorporates, among others, the product (e.g., lead compound, clinical candidate; prototype device); the mechanism; pre-clinical and, if available, clinical data; IP table; literature collection; CMC or other production experience, data and/or plans; clear regulatory and clinical development pathways; commercial and competitive assessments; and value-creating next steps.

Both the ‘sniper shot’ and ‘shotgun’ approaches should be employed to increase chances of a match.  A list of potential strategic partners, as well as the broad target buyers’ pool, should be assembled.

While technical ‘features’ should be summarized in the pitch (and supported in the due diligence package), the focus of the pitch should be on the ‘value’ (e.g., clinically relevant benefits) – the competitive differentiation that is expected to drive the net return of the product candidate or the technology – to the ‘customer’ (the R&D or Commercialization function of the potential large company partner that will be the decision maker on the other side).

Preparation

Materials to be prepared and continually optimized in response to questions and discussions include:

  • web page
  • the 20 second elevator pitch for the program or technology
  • corporate and technology executive summaries
  • short slide deck (10-15 minute presentation)
  • longer slide deck (to support a 1 hour follow-up meeting or call)
  • data summaries and reports that could lead to or support scientific due diligence
  • materials, samples, prototype etc. that could be supplied under a Material Transfer Agreement, if appropriate

Conferences and Visits

Industry conferences are efficient occasions to conduct meetings with pre-qualified potential partners (i.e., parties with whom contact has been previously made and interest ascertained).  They are also good venues for generating potential leads for deals, from pre-scheduled and ad hoc first meetings and discussions as well as formal presentations to audiences.  Publications and presentations, abstracts and posters at scientific conferences are important means of generating interest among larger company scouts and Key Opinion Leaders who advise potential larger company partners.

Ideally, there should be a 1-2 month lead time for outreach (both through the conference partnering or attendance software and via contacting companies you have been in discussions with or in the buyers’ pool) to set up a full slate of qualified meetings at each conference.

For one-on-one visits, preparation includes understanding the audience/participants, identifying key questions and negotiating or preparing an agenda designed to deliver business and corporate development objectives.  Particular attention needs to be paid if a potential partner wants to try the company’s product candidate or technology in their in-house models; the company should strive to the extent possible to limit such work to confirmation of testing that has already been successfully conducted in the company’s hands.  Also, since large companies routinely conduct competitive intelligence sweeps, the smaller company needs to focus on ‘pay’ activities that further its interests, rather than take every meeting or answer every question.

Execution

Successful deal-making more often results from a thoughtful and pro-active process, rather than a reactive series of meetings and discussions.  Turnaround speed, clarity, careful listening and responsiveness are keys to building a company’s brand as a quality partner with whom it is easy to do business.  Examples of brand building include, e.g., following up conference meetings with requested materials within 24 or 48 hours, rather than a week or two; supplying information via a clearly organized set of folders or virtual data room, rather than sending lots of documents from which information must be gleaned; and producing or turning confidentiality agreements, material transfer agreements, and similar documents within a day or two, rather than a week or two.

Negotiation

Once an interested buyer emerges, the negotiation will be affected by the company’s needs and objectives and the value to the potential partner.  The optimal position is to create a bidding contest between quality potential partners.  In any case, the economic consideration is one of several important factors; others include the best partner for ultimately harvesting the value from the deal, validation that could affect fundraising and cash and capacity to develop additional shots on goal.  Deals must allow both parties to derive adequate value; legally locking in terms that benefit one party without delivering value to the other party is inherently unstable.  Rather than trying to lock in a terrific comprehensive deal (which can delay and lower the probability of a deal), it can often be easier to proceed in stages, with the aim of starting a relationship and building more valuable deals.

Closing

Closing a deal is a skill and an art, and a challenge in project management that can often be like herding cats.  Proactive management, active listening and responsiveness, diplomacy and persistence require skill and execution bandwidth.

Harvest

It bears reminding that a deal is only a means to an end, and often may require renegotiations and pivots over time order to preserve, further and achieve the corporate objectives behind the deal.  Developments such as change in management, the shuttering of corporate offices or labs or the departure (or even death!) of champions can lead to termination of the relationship.  Deals can also give rise to additional opportunities and leverage, with other parties, both affiliated with the partner and with third parties.  Regular assessments, early intervention or capitalization of opportunities, and continuous updating of contingency plans can constitute significant ‘pay’ activities.

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These various critical deal making elements require strategic perspective, execution know-how and bandwidth, consistently applied.  Lean management teams of emerging companies who are challenged with multiple FTE’s worth of work can increase the odds of success via a quick, easy-to-start (and finish), experienced, self-starting executive to amplify their efforts.