Uniting biotech with pharma

One brings science; the other brings branding heft and infrastructure. Andrew Gordon reports on the finer points of the relationship

One brings science; the other brings branding heft and infrastructure. Andrew Gordon reports on the finer points of the relationship

This is a corrected version of the story that ran in the February 27 issue of PRWeek.

When The New York Times ran a front-page story recently about the federal government approving a revolutionary form of insulin that can be inhaled, Pfizer was the big pharmaceutical, but biotech Nektar Therapeutics also captured the spotlight in the piece.

The article hailed the innovative drug as the first alternative for the nearly 5 million Americans who must inject insulin. It noted that Pfizer would start selling the therapy, called Exubera, this summer. The article goes on to chronicle Nektar's science and R&D in making this therapy a reality.

Many biotech companies get coverage for their partnerships with big pharma. Yet, it is not always common to get the prominent front-page coverage that Nektar did in a national outlet like the Times. But that story shows the importance of pharma-biotech partnerships, and how such unions can not only help biotech companies distribute and market products, but also raise awareness of the biotech company itself.

Such partnerships are a fact of life in the healthcare industry. Pharma seeks out the partnerships for the science, while biotech needs pharma's financing, distribution, and marketing prowess.

Idenix Pharmaceuticals has such a partnership with Novartis that sees both companies co-promote and profit-split on such products as Idenix's telbivudine, a treatment for chronic hepatitis B. While such partnerships give smaller biotechs the infrastructure they lack to help bring a product to market, they also provide a boost to their brands, helping move the companies closer to self-sufficiency.

"From an IR standpoint, it gives us a lot of validation," says Teri Dahlman, manager of corporate communications at Idenix.

"It provides great credibility to the company and its science, long before anything ever reaches the [Food and Drug Administration]," adds Michael Roth, principal at healthcare and biotech firm BMC Communications Group. Fellow principal Brad Miles says such partnerships reassure investors that they will eventually see a return on their investment, and the company can execute on its vision.

But from the start, Idenix knew to make sure it would be protected from Novartis' highly prominent brand during partnership negotiations. Dahlman says the union has its own committees on everything from manufacturing to marketing, with equal representation on both sides.

"We work very closely," she explains. "We have a co-brand for joint products. We make sure everything happens in a branded alliance, so no company overshadows the other."

Yet a smaller biotech such as Idenix is certainly at far greater risk of being overshadowed by a company like Novartis than the other way around. But whether meeting with investors, physicians, or media, Dahlman says the partnership agreement makes sure both companies are presented equally, so Idenix gets credit where it's due.

But not all biotechs are so lucky. They need to assert themselves to make sure they are fairly represented, says Amy Sullivan, executive director of corporate com- munications at Idenix.

"People's eyes light up when they hear that Novartis, or Merck, or Johnson & Johnson is talking about a new therapy," says Sullivan. "Reporters will pick up on Novartis talking about a therapy, so we have to be a little more aggressive. But it all comes back to the deal, and we have great partners at Novartis.

Not everyone gets that. Some companies get no support from their [pharmaceutical partner], or the pharmaceutical company wants all the credit. Our situation is ideal because there is a primary contact at Novartis who is going to be a champion for us."

Smart biotechs know they can't rely on leveraging that partnership forever, says Jim Weiss, president and CEO of WeissComm Partners. That relationship can garner initial interest and help the biotech get coverage in key titles, speaking engagements, or meetings with investors. But biotechs need to lead with innovation and not rely too heavily on the partnership.

"A partnership is not government approval for a product," adds Jenny Moede, SVP at Waggener Edstrom. "You have to promote the science and long-term viability of the company. You can't promote a partnership if there's no approved product to sell."

Biotechs should be wary about overpromoting themselves. The partnerships are about promoting a product, not the company, warns Ann Tanabe, corporate communications VP for Encysive Pharmaceutical, which has partnerships with GlaxoSmithKline and Schering-Plough. Biotechs are not suddenly flush with cash to do with as they wish after such a partnership. The partnership can open up biotechs to new and larger audiences, but they still have limited resources to promote themselves.

It's a fine line both sides walk, as biotech is more inclined to talk about what it's doing to garner investor and industry interest, while pharma tends to be more tight-lipped, says Tony Russo, CEO of Euro RSCG Life PR. And that makes it difficult to put together a communications strategy.

"Pharma is uncomfortable talking about a drug before its efficacy has been established," explains Russo. "It's a rare day when you see pharma talk about a phase one clinical trial. But biotech feels comfortable talking about that early clinical development."

As biotech moves from relying on pharma to help distribute and market drugs to doing that itself, biotech will need to focus even more on the innovation that distinguishes it from big pharma. Otherwise, biotech will have a hard time distancing itself from pharma's problems, namely the perception that it puts profits over patients.

Biotechs, then, should strive to ensure their pharma partners are as involved in marketing as possible. Otherwise, pharma's lack of dialogue could send the signal that the relationship is not that important in the long run and just another notch on pharma's bedpost.

 

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