“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself,” Henry Ford once said. Or how about this one from the father of evolution: “It is the long history of humankind…that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed."

The quotes are cliché, yes, but the message behind them is still relevant. Perhaps even more so when you consider who the quotes are attributed to—two scientific pioneers of their day.

According to Deloitte’s recently released “Partnering for progress: How collaborations are fueling biomedical advances” report, the biopharmaceutical industry has spent the last decade figuring out what Darwin deduced in the late 1800’s—collaborations propel scientific research.

Partnership models

A major trend that emerged from Deloitte’s research is the life science industry’s shift from traditional asset-based partnerships to collaborative, non-asset-based R&D partnerships.

“Traditional asset-based partnerships involve two parties focused on advancing a particular asset and use a structure that distributes control risks and rewards,” Neil Lesser, Deloitte’s life science R&D strategy lead, explained to Laboratory Equipment. “Asset-based partnerships include acquisitions and licensing of compounds, technology or products. In comparison, non-asset based partnerships are collaborative alliances that typically include three or more parties and are often comprised of a mix of ecosystem stakeholders, including biopharmaceutical companies, academia, nonprofits and government entities. The non-asset-based partnerships aim to expand knowledge and understanding both across and within therapeutic areas, operational capabilities and one or more indications.”

In the last 10 years examined (2005 to 2014), the number of non-asset-based partnerships and consortia grew by a factor of nine—to approximately 9,000 partnerships with an annual growth rate of four percent. That number is more than double the quantity in the preceding decade (1995 to 2004). The consortium model was particularly popular in the second decade, rising from 34 in the decade ending 2004 to 334 total from 2005-2014.

Additionally, report results indicate more partnerships are forming in earlier stages of the R&D process (i.e., prior to a potential new therapy entering clinical trials), with the average number of new early-stage (discovery, basic research and pre-clinical) partnerships more than doubling between 2004 (256) and 2014 (578). It’s important to note traditional asset-based partnerships declined somewhat over the same time period, but still remain a common rote to collaboration.

“We attribute the increase in [early-stage] partnerships to a number of different things, including the increase in medical needs, rare diseases and complexity of drugs,” Lesser said. “Finding a way to bring innovation therapy to market with fewer resources is considered a win.”

Resources have always been a pain point in the pharmaceutical industry, with today’s ever-increasing R&D costs placing an even larger burden on those involved. Traditional methods for the development and assessment of safety and efficacy have fallen behind the pace of innovation. Collaborating allows all partners to better navigate increasingly complex scientific, technological and regulatory hurdles in an efficient and timely manner. This is yet another factor Lesser believes is responsible for the drastic increase in early-stage partnerships in the last decade.

These partnerships feature shared control, decision-making and resources, thus spreading potential risk—as well as potential reward. It’s all predicated on “precompetitive collaboration,” or the process of distributing knowledge and capabilities across peers, without blocking an organization’s path to success. Once something of value is derived from a partnership, invested parties leave and pave their own way forward toward IP or patents.

“The knowledge derived from precompetitive collaboration is the source of future competition itself,” Adam Keeney, Global Head, External Innovation Strategy and Business Development at Sanofi told Deloitte. “Well-validated targets are good for the industry. We’ll compete in other ways—over how good our chemists are, how quickly we can generate effective new drugs, and how efficiently we can then bring them to market.”

Neuroscience research

One of the research areas that has benefited greatly from the rise of the non-asset-based collaboration model is disease modeling—specifically Alzheimer’s Disease, Lesser points out.

Formed in 2004, the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI) is a prime example of a non-traditional, successful consortia. The initiative, originally created by the National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging, the Food and Drug Administration, and a handful of industry, academic and non-profit organizations, now has well over 30 partners across North America supporting the investigation and development of treatments that slow or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s.

During the longitudinal study, global researchers at different sites obtain and assess clinical and imaging data, as well as genetic and biospecimen biomarkers from patients with normal aging, early mild cognitive impairment, late mild cognitive impairment and those with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. With established, standardized methods for imaging and biomarker collection and analysis, ADNI facilitates a way for scientists to conduct cohesive research and share compatible data with other researchers around the world. The goal of the ADNI study is to track the progression of the disease using biomarkers to assess the brain’s structure and function over the course of four disease states. Results are shared by ADNI through USC’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging’s Image Data Archive.

Additionally, the overall ADNI study collaborates too, partnering with other related Alzheimer’s Disease studies to form a larger study cohort—which equates to more data and enhanced scientific results. ADNI has collaborative agreements with: AIBL: Australian Imaging, Biomarker & Lifestyle Flagship Study of Ageing; the Department of Defense ADNI; and Argentina ADNI.

Since its formation, ADNI has developed methods for early detection and improved the efficiency of clinical trials for Alzheimer’s Disease.

But ADNI is just one of the 334 consortia identified through 2014. Some exist to battle specific diseases, like CoNNCT (Collaborative Novel-Novel Combination Therapies), which combines academic centers, biopharmaceutical companies and nonprofits to accelerate identification of effective drug combinations for cancers. The collaboration makes it easier to test multiple combinations of new drugs, reduce the financial burden of studies, shorten the time it takes for proof of concept and, ultimately, accelerate the development of novel treatments.

Other collaborations target a broad range of disease areas, like the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr). Partners gather under this non-profit’s umbrella to accelerate translational research into developing new medicines for patients with unmet medical needs. According to Deloitte, Calibr’s early success enabled it to build a unique structure that allows commercial partnerships later in the development process.

The path forward

As evidenced by the data, there is growing recognition of the value and importance of collaboration across the life science sector, especially in the biopharmaceutical industry. The example has been set—and it’s a good one.

Deloitte anticipates seeing continued expansion in disease area-focused consortia (like ADNI and CoNNCT), “including growing emphasis on more ‘open’ agreements with respect to structure, control, risk sharing and other business agreements,’” the report reads.

“When all of the stakeholders exist within one ecosystem, they are able to make new discoveries, advancements and treatments that would have been difficult to achieve working alone,” Lesser said. “Lessons learned from these collaborations can be used to enable more precompetitive collaborations in additional areas of research. We also see that an increase in demand for more real-world evidence and evolving payment models will lead to an even broader range of partnerships in the future and ultimately increase the potential for new breakthroughs.”