Many digital health firms dream of inking their first pharma partnership deal - and rightly so. These partnerships bring to the table the unrivalled opportunity to build, validate, and expand the reach of digital solutions. Yet, having gone through the pharma-startup partnering process numerous times, I can say from personal experience that creating a great partnership takes significant amounts of time, understanding, and effort.
PharmStars - the first and only pharma-focused digital health accelerator - was launched to equip digital health companies with the tools to navigate forming pharma partnerships and provide the opportunity for startups to speak with potential partners who are willing to explore unchartered territory. Streamlining the typically long partnership conversations, constant back-and-forth, and endless wrangling of terms has an obvious upside, however the question still remains, once the partnership has been formed how do you make sure it is successful? Here are my top tips.
1. Develop clear goals.
Despite the all-encompassing conversations that typically happen prior to a finalised partnership, it is surprisingly common to see digital health-pharma projects proceed with ill-defined goals. My personal theory is that pharma and digital health firms are hesitant to lay all their cards out on the table when it comes to their motivations for partnering. This unfortunate reality leads to project goals that don't end up fully meeting the needs of either party.
Treat goal setting conversations as technical rather than emotional. It is to be expected that startups and pharma will have different motivations for pursuing a partnership. However, at the end of the day both parties only "win" if the partnership is successful. It is, therefore, imperative that goals are clearly defined and set early to avoid confusion, complications, and disagreements over responsibilities.
2. Keep things focused.
There are boundless ways that digital health startups and pharma can work together. This is a great thing, but also poses the problem of how to maintain focus. It is remarkably easy to start adding new elements to projects as time goes on. Committing to extra features, looping in new business units, or increasing the target population size are typical examples of scope creep.
Remember that there is plenty of room for partnerships to grow and you don't need to do everything all at once. Digital health firms should be cautious to never overpromise and underdeliver. Always bear in mind that pharma values success over big and/or complex.
3. Don't underestimate the time and resource commitment.
It is always difficult to estimate time and resource commitments. But with experience it does get easier. Unfortunately for digital health startups, what might be true for health providers or health payers is more often than not wrong for pharma.
Pharma is accustomed to a high level of service and routinely contracts out many of their services - such as clinical research organisations and management consultants. The unfortunate reality is that your team will be expected to act in a similar "high touch" fashion. There is also the extra regulatory, security, and legal burdens typically placed on firms that work with pharma which only adds to the complexity of these types of partnerships.
4. Maintain clear lines of communication.
This final point may seem obvious, however it is maybe the most important of all. When it comes to communication, the expectations of pharma are much higher than many other institutions. At a minimum digital health startups should maintain regular communication via predetermined channels, at a predetermined cadence, with clear agendas prepared ahead of time.