How to forge successful R&D partnerships

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and James Moore, Canada’s minister for industry who in 2012, when this photo was taken, served as minister of Canadian heritage and official languages, receive a chemistry lesson at the center’s upgraded chemistry wing. Shrum Science Center in Burnaby, Canada, focuses on research and development in the life sciences, radiochemistry and the environment. Photo by: Province of British Columbia / CC BY-NC-ND

The current commercial research and development model is failing to keep up with the pace of infectious diseases. Three out of every seven people around the world are at risk of contracting a major infectious disease, and one in seven people are already infected.

Global health groups working to combat diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, HIV and AIDS and neglected tropical diseases are calling for new ways of developing lifesaving vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. Partnerships between public and private bodies are increasingly seen as the answer, because they can be cheaper, faster and are unmotivated by profit.

But how can global development professionals and organizations forge such partnerships, and what does it take to ensure success?

One way is to find an organization to facilitate negotiations, according to B.T. Slingsby, head of the the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund, which funds product development for global health R&D and encourages international partnerships among nongovernmental organizations, private companies, research organizations, academics and others. GHIT is also set up as a public-private partnership between five Japanese pharmaceutical companies, two Japanese government ministries and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Without such external support, he said that finding a champion to lead the cause is imperative when looking to create a partnership.

“The champion needs to be an individual,” Slingsby told Devex. “If you have just one person within an organization that’s really passionate about the project, they can carry momentum forward and be the inertia for that entity.”

Finding a champion is part of the process of identifying the right partner. Slingsby’s team meets people at all levels of potential partner organizations, as champions are not necessarily executives.

“I often meet with C-level individuals: CEOs, COOs, CFOs … from that level to a staff level,” he explained. “Just having one person become a champion often leads others to become champions. It doesn’t matter if it’s C-level or manager-level — finding that person to work with in that organization is key.”

Slingsby pointed out that while partnered organizations must have a shared vision of what they want to achieve, the goals of partner members may be different.

“In GHIT’s case we’re looking at more individuals in endemic areas of the world having access to new technology — that’s hands down one of the most vital conditions and visions we have,” he said. “But in terms of goals, they are often subjective.”

Sharing information

Once an organization has found the right partner and the right champion, having the correct people in place is a must.

Interest and motivation are key characteristics in any R&D project team, and Slingsby said this atmosphere will be generated by “having fun” rather than remuneration.

“To have fun is a key thing for any management of a partnership,” he stressed.

In addition, achieving results together is necessary to sustain partnerships. To do this, Slingsby recommends organizations follow private sector-style management processes on product management, looking at milestones and timelines, and that members of the team act professionally.

Part of this strategy involves ensuring the project is positioned appropriately within a partner organization. NGOs or other organizations initiating the collaboration should help the partner conduct the internal and external communication required to find the right solution.

“It’s about trying to be as helpful as possible in order to reach a shared goal,” Slingsby said.

Organizations forming partnerships must also consider how they will deliver their final product once it is produced, and coordinating activity with other NGOs or agencies already on the ground in a particular country is crucial.

“Sharing info is key, especially in the interconnected world in which we live,” Slingsby said. “It should not be difficult with all the gadgets we have.”

He suggests the most natural coordinator of any delivery in a country is the local ministry of health, but partnerships should work alongside ministries that lack the resources to coordinate and share information.

Finally, Slingsby recommends organizations embarking on partnerships to consider how the model can be used to support other areas of R&D:

“If we have discovered, within the anti-invectives world right now in terms of malaria and TB, a model that is working, who is to say that cannot be worked for other specialties such as oncology or cardiovascular diseases?” he asked. “Using this model that we and other product development partnerships are driving forward is a golden nugget, and I would really be interested in looking at how we can apply that on a more commercial basis going forward to other diseases.”

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

About the author

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    Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.