Research & business collaboration: Case Celgene

Collaborating with a company on a research project can be a great start for a long-term partnership that benefits both parties. Research Group Leader Caroline Heckman shares her best practices.

“Finland is in a very good position to benefit from collaborations between researchers and companies. We have excellent research and valuable resources here”, says Caroline Heckman, Group Leader at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM).

If someone is an expert in this, it’s Heckman. She is part of a drug development collaboration together with hematology professor Kimmo Porkka from the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS). On the business side of the collaboration is Celgene, a global biopharmaceutical company that develops therapeutics for blood cancers such as multiple myeloma.

Visits back and forth

The collaborators first met at the end of 2012 when Celgene’s Nordic department invited the leader of Celgene’s research institute in Spain, James Carmichael, to visit HUS. Carmichael also got a tour of FIMM because the institute participates in the Finnish Hematology Registry and Biobank initiated by HUS’s Kimmo Porkka.

“James was incredibly impressed by the resources and the infrastructure of the biobank that FIMM hosts”, Caroline Heckman says.

Soon enough Heckman and Porkka were invited to the United States to meet with Carmichael as well as Celgene’s President of Research and Early Development at the time, Thomas Daniel.

“Celgene is one of the industry leaders in developing drugs for multiple myeloma. Although we were not conducting research on myeloma then, they asked if it would be possible to start a myeloma project”, Heckman explains.

“I have a background in other similar diseases from my postdoctoral period, so I was very positive when they asked us to jump on board.”

Mutual confidence and common goals
are key

The collaboration begun with a pilot project that created mutual confidence between the parties. Celgene provided a significant amount of funding for the relatively small pilot to get it going, while Heckman’s research group accomplished what they had proposed in a determined time frame: They analysed samples from thirty myeloma patients using methods including high throughput drug testing and next generation sequencing. After the successful pilot both parties agreed to continue and expanded the project to include more patient samples and additional diseases.

Collaborating with a company is a great way to get startup funding for a new project. In the best case scenario the interests of the company and the research group are in line.

“The collaboration provided us funding for very expensive analysis. This benefits both us and Celgene: With the funding we can produce data that we can use in our research and the company can utilize for their interests as well”, Caroline Heckman says.

Confidence isn’t always self-evident. Companies might have previous poor experiences with collaborators that haven’t fulfilled what they’ve proposed, which tends to make companies wary and cautious. Researchers, on the other hand, want to be able to publish the results of the research they’ve conducted on time and get credit for their work. Confidence is built step by step. This can happen by making sure both parties agree to the same terms.

Think big but protect your rights

So, what should a researcher keep in mind when negotiating a collaboration with a company? Make sure the potential Intellectual Property Rights
(IPR), like patents or copyrights, are well protected or at least compensated for, advices Heckman. It should be clearly expressed in the contract who owns what.

Something that might cause a headache is budgeting. Budgets in company collaborations are usually in a larger scale than the standard academic budgets or research grants. You should be able to tell explicitly where all the costs come from.

“Companies don’t like receiving budgets that don’t express what all the costs are for. You need to think about your budget in a way that is both accessible for the company and still compensates your work”, Heckman says.

Even though budgeting and negotiating can seem troublesome, they might lead into a long-lasting, successful collaboration. Always remember to think big.

“These can be very long-term partnerships. Our discussions with Celgene started back in 2012. Now it’s 2017 and we still have a very good collaboration going.”


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