In the spotlight

Partnering with a big pharma entity can be a tremendous coup for a biotech company, but it also presents a number of challenges on the comms front.

Up until the second half of 2007 rolled around, Ambrx, a small San Diego-based biotechnology company looking for a breakthrough in protein therapeutics, had not yet enjoyed a moment that brought significant media attention. But in the span of less than six months, the company announced three major partnerships - with Merck Serono, Eli Lilly, and Merck - that launched it into the big time.

As much as executives and the communications team at the company wanted to scream the good news from the rooftops, there are unique and complicated considerations when it comes to these kinds of partnerships.

"It was a really transformational year for us," says Kevin Eastwood, VP of corporate develop- ment for the company, adding that the communications challenges begin to show as soon as the possibility of a partnership is raised. "The discussion that then begins is; 'What are we going to say about the collaboration?'"

Of utmost importance, Eastwood says, is to become familiar with the larger company's internal review process and to appreciate the turnaround time necessary for a large company. To aid this process, Ambrx drew up a question-and- answer document to circulate among its own communications team (Russo Partners provide PR support to the company), and Merck Serono's team when the two companies agreed to collaborate on ARX201, a long-acting growth hormone.

"It's one thing to agree on language in a press release," Eastwood says. "But what happens if someone calls and you pick up the phone? To have a document that goes into additional elements that people may want to know about and getting aligned on that was very helpful."

So helpful, in fact, that the company continued the practice when in December it announced partnerships on back-to-back days with Lilly and Merck, the former for treatments in metabolic disease and central nervous system disorders and the latter for a treatment of Type 2 diabetes.

Partnerships between small biotech companies and big pharmaceutical companies are nothing new, of course. But there is increased interest and hype surrounding these partnerships as big pharma companies look for ways to boost diminishing pipelines.

From a communications standpoint, such partnerships present both unique challenges, as well as clear benefits for both sides of the equation. The challenges are obvious: A small company, with a stock price dependent on a small number of products in development, is often eager to communicate any news it can to investors and media. A larger company is often more conservative in communications, and usually focuses on products already on the market.

"For me, the biggest learning process has been an appreciation of how these companies function and how they're organized," says Chris Merrill, director of business development and alliance management for Tolerx.

Late last year, Tolerx inked a deal with GlaxoSmithKline for the commercialization of otelixizumab, an antibody that has potential across a range of autoimmune diseases, as well as Type 1 diabetes. Assisted by Porter Novelli Life Sciences, the team worked with Merrill's counterpart at GSK, Letizia Amadia Lane, an alliance manager that works through both companies' communications needs and concerns.

"I think the biggest [pharma companies] are getting much better at working with smaller companies because it's become part of their business models," Merrill says. "The programs they're bringing in are very important for them, so it's in their best interest to make sure the [biotech] company has its needs addressed."

With a one-stop contact for anything the company needs to confer on, the setup has huge ad- vantages for Tolerx, as well as GSK.

Those advantages began to come into focus immediately, before the agreement was even announced, Merrill says. "There were a number of things to consider," he explains. "The financial components were important to us to show the value we obtained. They were very accommodating in understanding what our needs were."

Tolerx was determined to ensure investors understood the company still had significant upside potential if the product was approved, maintaining a share in profits. According to Merrill, the company was able to successfully communicate to investors and media after a dialogue with GSK hammered out the details of what could and couldn't be said.

The collaboration between Takeda Pharmacueticals and Affymax for Hematide, Affymax's product candidate for the treatment of anemia, is another that has thrived.

Since 2006, Affymax has enjoyed a strong relationship with the Japanese company, according to Sylvia Wheeler, executive director of corporate communications for the company. Last month, following an agreement between Takeda and Amgen, there was some confusion in the marketplace as to how the news affected the Affymax collaboration. While cultural differences may have been to blame (there wasn't any confusion in the Japanese markets), Wheeler says Takeda made sure to clear up any questions Affymax executives had.

"They were happy to make themselves available to reporters or investors to clear up any confusion," she says.

WeissComm Partners supports Affymax on the communications front.

Wheeler says that while there may be challenges to communications aspects of a partnership, there are also huge benefits. "When you sign on with a big pharma partner, not only are they bringing experience on the commercial front, but you benefit on the communications front too," she says. "And it potentially expands your communications reach, because there are certain guidelines reporters have to follow, such as size of the company. Sometimes we get a little more visibility because we're associated with that company.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in