The view was aired during a discussion between a range of small pharma and biotechs, global contract research organisation (CRO) Quintiles and a host of PCT Europe attendees at last week’s show in Hamburg.
In general, the SMEs (small to mid-size enterprises) – including Almirall, Ferring , Merz and Intercell – believed the time and resources needed to work with a small company, as well as a lack of financial certainty makes them a secondary priority to to larger, more consistent sponsors.
Oana Vasilescu, supply chain manager for Intercell said large providers are often dissuaded “because the smaller pipelines common in SMEs makes a shorter term business opportunity than a big company with a big pipeline,” adding “small firms are also a higher financial risk as they are extremely dependent on external funding.”
Ferring’s Jorgen Debois, director of vendor management,added that the need for extreme flexibility also presents challenges for big CROs. “Our decision process is quite slow compared to big pharmas and when we have a decision we need to move fast,” he explained. “CROs need the flexibility to provide the teams we need when we need them.”
Estrella García, head of global clinical operations and strategic resourcing for Almirall also said small companies’ tendency towards micromanagement can present problems because vendors feel they are being watched too closely.
She said however that “CROs need to understand it is often our one and only time to work on the compound with them,” because of cost constraints. “We need to strike a balance. The CROs problems are our problems, and our problems are theirs.”
Why form SME/big CRO partnerships?
Despite the pitfalls, the panel stressed that partnerships between large CROs and SMEs are crucial for both parties.
From a vendor’s perspective, moderator Jeanne Hecht, senior VP and global head of sales for Quintiles, said the product is more important than the size of the firm. “For us, we look at opportunities that complement our expertise and products that are important to the market place.”
An audience member from an equally large provider added that the opportunity to “work collectively” with smaller companies is another boon.
“It provides opportunities you wouldn’t get from Big Pharma such as ability to work together. This is very important for a big CRO as it allows us to plan our business,” hesaid, adding that any chance a big CRO gets to gain some stability and get a feel of the future pipeline in the “lumpy” industry is a good opportunity.
As for SME pharma and biotechs large technology platforms, trial and data management, professional and operational muscle and expanded geographic footprint were all heralded as reasons to work with a big CRO.
From the discussion, the key solution to relationship issues was establishing a strong point of contact within the CRO. The panel said there should be one contact who knows the product from start to end, works closely with the sponsor throughout and, according to Vasilescu, should be empowered to make decisions.
García agreed, saying: “If we have a good business development manager who can move internally, and a portfolio manager who can give us the strategic feedback for me that’s a way to get inside the CRO. Whenever we go to you with a problem we need to be listened to.”
Jens Opitz, head of clinical operations for Merz added that forming a strong joint development plan early on, stressing what is needed not only from the CRO but also from third party vendors, is also important.