An Inside Look at Handling Alliance Management

Astellas’ Mary Jo Struttmann, executive director of alliance management, has played an integral role in launching some of the company’s most successful partnerships, including the partnership with Seagen on bladder cancer drug PADCEV, as well as the Astellas/Pfizer partnership on XTANDI, a prostate cancer drug that has been prescribed to more than 675,000 patients to date. Here she talks to Pharm Exec about how to form strategic partnerships to bring new drugs to market and how to navigate partnerships, alliance dynamics, and potential challenges in 2022 and beyond.

Pharm Exec: What is Astellas’ unique approach to alliances?

Struttmann: Alliances are a critical part of our strategy, fueling our most successful cancer treatment to date, some of our fastest-growing products, and important parts of our pipeline. With the remarkable breadth of advances in science, external partnerships are the best way to ensure we have the necessary variety of drug development technology and know-how including modality/technology and biology, as well as commercial capabilities. Our open innovation model, expertise, global capabilities, and entrepreneurial culture combine to offer unique levels of collaboration, which we think makes Astellas an ideal partner for academics and companies of all sizes and types.

Pharm Exec: How does Astellas successfully manage its alliances?

Struttmann: High-performing, commercial-stage alliances think of themselves as a single brand entity. This is something that we’ve embraced at Astellas in our relationships with our partners. It’s not two companies working together; it’s about all stakeholders putting the interests of patients and the alliance ahead of our respective company practices. When one of our long-term alliances is performing at its best, the alliance’s joint steering committee operates like the brand’s board of directors, with a focus on how we can bring more value to patients and the brand. You could sit in on one of our meetings and you might not be able to tell who works for which company. This “Brand, Inc.” philosophy was recently recognized with an Alliance Excellence Award from the Association of Strategic Alliance Professionals.

We also place importance on aligning on a “North Star” to guide the alliance, as well as performing regular effectiveness assessments. Both of these are hallmarks of our alliance with Seagen. Being aligned around a North Star assists in setting goals and objectives with everyone clearly understanding what needs to be done. We’ve conducted regular alliance operational effectiveness assessments since 2007, when we came into the partnership through our acquisition of Agensys. Developed by a consulting firm that specializes in alliance management, partnering, and collaboration (The Rhythm of Business), VitalSigns assessments provide targeted, outcomes-based evaluations of how well the alliance is functioning in pursuit of its strategic goals. It provides a quantifiable look at what is and isn’t working in the alliance so that we can identify areas for improvement and work with specific committees to develop action plans where needed.

Pharm Exec: What role does leadership play in alliance management?

Struttmann: Alliances are led by senior-level people like me who have a broad range of experience that enables us to have a holistic view of the alliance, proactively manage risk, and actively pursue the strategic intent of the alliance. As the professional alliance manager, I am the eyes and the ears of everything that’s going on across that alliance.

Our top management has prioritized alliance management. From the CEO down, our executive champions meet on a routine basis with their counterparts at the other company to proactively align on our path forward. Without that level of engagement, you are not going to realize the full potential of the alliance.

Pharm Exec:What advice would you give those wanting to establish successful alliances?

Struttmann: The right start is important. Get alignment on a North Star and goals early. Understand the culture of your partner, particularly as it relates to decision-making.

Going into an alliance, it’s important to understand each partner’s goals. Beyond the product itself, a company may want to learn how to launch a product or gain access to a new therapeutic or geographic area. With corporate goals in mind, shared short- and long-term goals can then be mapped out to work toward a common North Star and make decisions accordingly. We keep our corporate goals and objectives in mind, but as an alliance, the key to success is making sure we’re operating in the best interest of our patients and product.

Cultural differences—particularly risk tolerance and decision-making processes—impact the speed of the partnership. For each partner, understand what decisions have to be discussed internally before they come to governance. Understand that there are three points of view—company, partner, and alliance—and try to find a way that works for all while following the rules of the road. It’s not always an easy thing to do.

As time goes on, make sure you have the right leaders and be open to change when change is needed. Working on a partnered product requires a different mindset and skill set than working on a solo product. You have to love collaboration—both the rewards and the challenges.

Pharm Exec: Business has been disrupted and pharma alliances are no exception. What recent changes have you made?

Struttmann:Relationships are critically important. Building trust and transparency takes a long time. It's a lot harder to do virtually, but I think we are more thoughtful about how we build those connections. To build camaraderie and collaboration during meetings, we put together well-defined agendas, send pre-read materials at least a week ahead of time, and—importantly—we request cameras on. Also, ahead of time, the alliance manager for each company meets with the team to assess alignment on the topics, and if we’re not aligned, to see if we can find a mutually agreeable path forward.

We have also started implementing virtual team-building activities to get to know each other on a more personal level. We’re looking at digital platforms beyond file sharing that will enable us to share information and further connect as an alliance team.

Pharm Exec: What are trends executives should keep an eye on in 2022 and beyond?

Struttmann: We’re moving toward different kinds of partnerships. With the growth of targeted therapies, companion diagnostics companies are logical partners for us. However, they typically have a multipartner, nonexclusive business model that’s completely different than ours. These partnerships are a big shift and are forcing pharma companies to think differently and work faster.

Even within pharma, alliances will continue to evolve. The classic partnership based on a small biotech’s molecule and a big pharma’s marketing knowledge, for example, is no longer the only type of alliance. We are seeing more alliances form with academia, clinical collaborations for combination therapies, digital therapeutics, and platform-based multi-asset deals. Just watch where the science is focused, and you’ll see new collaborations follow.

To learn more about partnering with Astellas, visit https://www.astellas.com/us/innovation/partnering.