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The secrets of successful industry-academic partnerships


The Institute of Cancer Research, London – the world’s leading academic centre for drug discovery – has announced a major new strategic partnership with science and technology company Merck, and Cancer Research UK. Here Dr Angela Kukula, Director of Enterprise at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) – and responsible for its interactions with industry – gives some tips on what makes a good collaboration between industry and academic researchers.

Posted on 19 June, 2018 by Dr Angela Kukula

Handshake across a table

Image credit: Pixabay. Licensed under a Creative Commons CC0 license.

Note, this blog post first appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of Pharmafile

The ICR is well known for establishing productive partnerships with industry, along with major research successes such as our discovery and development of the prostate cancer drug abiraterone. We often come out at or near the top of UK and international rankings for research impact and commercialisation.

We have more than 100 current partnerships with a range of companies, from small, specialised biotech firms to big pharma.

One of our most significant new partnerships is a multi-project collaboration and licensing deal with Merck and the charity Cancer Research UK.

This alliance will take a strategic joint approach to drug discovery and development in areas of shared scientific expertise, building on successful collaborations in the past on individual research projects.

The partnership will aim to progress the discovery and development of potential cancer drugs, from target discovery to the nomination of preclinical drug candidates, in three areas of mutual interest.

Scientists working under the collaboration will also develop new biomarker tests, to show how new drugs work, guide the selection of patients for clinical trials and ultimately identify those patients most likely to benefit from treatment.

Forming this type of partnership doesn’t happen overnight.

So what goes into making a successful collaboration between a company and an academic institution like the ICR?

Respect and understanding

Perhaps the most important principle of successful partnerships is an awareness and appreciation of the differences between the organisations in terms of culture and approach.

Partnerships that cross the boundaries between public and private organisations need to actively consider their different ways of working and what this can bring to the relationship.

Academic institutions often have different drivers from commercial companies. For academic organisations drivers might be around societal benefit and the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge, whereas for businesses it is more likely to be the timely development of new products and delivering value for shareholders. There has to be understanding on both sides of each other’s needs and goals for partnerships to work.

But even if the drivers for the ICR and our partners are different, they don’t have to be mutually exclusive – and partnerships between different organisations can be very productive if these different goals and processes are harnessed to accelerate progress towards the same end.

One way to develop mutual understanding is to insist on transparency within the project, acting as a single project team regardless of which organisation you are working in.

The ability to see, comment on and critique each other’s results not only benefits the project by harnessing ideas from both sides but also breaks down barriers, and builds trust, preventing silos developing within different laboratories.

Our quarterly newsletter, Connections, showcases our work and commercial partnerships, shares learning, and identifies ways for staff, students and industry partners to get involved. 

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Encouraging entrepreneurial culture

From the ICR’s point of view, it helps that we have a philosophy of encouraging interaction with industry, often partnering very early so we can benefit from the input of industry resources and expertise.

Many of our researchers, including at the most senior levels, have substantial industry experience, which helps to foster an entrepreneurial culture. That many of our researchers want to collaborate with industry makes it relatively easy for conversations to start.

We are also finding that, particularly in large companies, more and more industry people now seem to understand the academic culture and how to work with it to achieve successful collaborations.

When a person at a company understands our philosophy and approach, it makes everything much smoother, and can help to open up new possibilities. That’s the case for our strategic alliance with Merck and Cancer Research UK, but we are very happy to help new collaborators understand how we work.

However – it’s still a big jump from mutual understanding to building a successful collaboration.

There are a number of other practical steps that both academic institutions and companies can follow to increase their chances of success.

  • Start small
    One piece of advice I often give to our academic staff is to start small – for example with small consulting projects. The Merck collaboration started with smaller projects relating to specific drug targets, before leading to our new alliance.

  • Complimentary expertise
    As well as finding areas of shared interest, it’s useful to have complimentary expertise – with each side bringing something different to the table that will enhance the project overall. When looking at new possible collaborations, we often look at the resources a project will need that we don’t have readily available in house.

  • ‘Deal breakers’
    It also helps for both sides to be clear at the outset which terms will have little, or no, room for negotiation – where the ‘deal-breakers’ are. For the ICR, for example, our ability to publish our work (possibly after a short delay for the filing of patent applications) and to continue working in a specific field are unlikely to be negotiable. From the industry point of view, a business might need to insist on exclusivity in certain aspects of the deal.

  • Timing
    Another potential sticking point to get out in the open as early as possible is timing. New partners need to understand each other’s timeframes. For example, a company might be looking for an answer to a research question in six months – which wouldn’t work within the timeframe for an academic PhD studentship, but might be suited for a short postdoctoral project.

Team science

Modern science is a team endeavour. In cancer research, the questions we are asking now are so large we often require teamwork between many different specialists, with different knowledge and skills.

Building strong connections between individuals with different sets of skills is essential, and this principle applies to teams across different organisations as much as within just one. And with mutual respect and understanding, cross-organisational alliances can be very successful indeed.

About Dr Angela Kukula

Dr Angela Kukula leads the ICR’s Enterprise Unit, which helps the ICR regularly top UK and international league tables that measure good practice in knowledge exchange and the impact of research on society.

Dr Kukula blogs on issues around commercial partnerships and knowledge exchange in Connections, the ICR’s quarterly newsletter aimed at professionals and researchers working in academic and commercial settings – from small biotech firms to big pharma – as well as potential investors and partners in our commercial research programmes.


abiraterone Angela Kukula Enterprise Unit
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