Undivided Attention: the BMS-Concerto Story
by Michael J. Burke
Originally posted on September 25, 2019 on the Association of Strategic Alliances (ASAP) blog.
Nontraditional alliances took center stage (literally) yet again today as the opening session at the ASAP BioPharma Conference 2019 got under way in Boston. Titled “Building Value in Non-Traditional Pharma/Biotech Partnerships: BMS and Concerto Health AI,” the session was moderated by Stu Kliman, Partner at Vantage Partners, and featured David Anstatt, Executive Director of the Center for Observational Research and Data Sciences at Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Jeff Elton, CEO of Concerto Health AI.
The big pharma company and the oncology data, platform and artificial intelligence start-up have formed a unique partnership—or in Kliman’s words “a super-cool, super-impactful, super-important alliance”—that may well be a harbinger of things to come, not only in terms of linking a large pharma company with drug-related and commercial expertise to a technology company with data-crunching capabilities, but also in terms of the closeness and “intimacy” of the partnership, with its necessary higher-than-average levels of trust and transparency.
According to Elton, Concerto’s mission is to “think about unsolved problems in oncology” and then to acquire, integrate, and engineer real-world data in order to solve those problems for the benefit of patients. Anstatt described Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) as “a conservative company interested in agility”—characteristics which led it to look for agile partners with unique data and platform capabilities that BMS could leverage to drive analytics and insights across R&D, and eventually Commercial and Manufacturing.
While it wasn’t clear from the outset where the agreement would eventually land, the two companies ultimately created a tight-knit relationship and working together model built around integrated working teams, “early and often” iteration, and highly collaborative co-development. “We have plenty of relationships where you throw it over the wall and [you get] what you get,” said Anstatt. “This [isn’t] that kind of relationship.”
Both stressed that each company has its own specific interests and objectives within and outside the partnership—and are also committed to making the partnership work for both companies. In other words, they started with a philosophy and indeed created a contractual structure where there is literally “no out.” Or as Elton said, “I don’t have exit provisions.” The implication is that when problems arise, they will quickly be put on the table for discussion and jointly addressed. This generates unusual frankness and directness in communication, and by extension a “super high degree of alignment,” according to Elton.
It also means that when, for example, the contractual minimum has been delivered but more is needed to solve the target business objective, team members from both companies remain focused on driving things forward.
“We want more heads looking at it, more experts,” said Anstatt. “It has challenged our organization to do things differently.”
So what could have been merely a vendor-customer type of transactional relationship became a means by which both parties have worked to innovate, with BMS getting the “best of” Concerto’s thinking and expertise and working with this rather unique partner to build something and develop things in an exploratory way.
Additionally, as part of their dedication to making this work, both firms are supported by Vantage Partners, which serves in a “Strategic PMO” role—developing and managing a project plan with a laser focus on value, surfacing and proactively addressing key challenges, issues and risks, and enhancing collaboration at all levels.
As Kliman noted, like all alliances, nontraditional collaborations can fail if they are not launched in the right way—with teams aligned not just on deliverables but also “what’s the business value and what will it entail to actually deliver it?” The two parties must understand each other’s sometimes differing objectives and thus what’s driving their behaviors, and must also institute a leadership model that goes beyond governance, is focused on effective change management, and allows for continual “co-creation in an iterative kind of way.”
Finally, Elton observed that the business terms of this alliance were rigorously grounded in business objectives; with business unit leaders highly engaged in the process and Business Development, Alliance Management, and key other groups also frequently consulted. This model may quickly become more common in the life sciences space, as he noted—and that should make for more products and solutions that enhance patient health outcomes.