Fighting crime in the health enterprise: Five tips for building academic-industry partnerships

shutterstock_224589463Bruce Zetter, PhD, wears quite a few hats: Pioneer. Partner. Teacher. Mentor. Charles Nowiszewski Professor of Cancer Biology in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Department of Surgery.

Now, he’s adding crime fighter to the list. “The biggest crime in the health enterprise is when the next cure for Parkinson’s disease, cancer or multiple sclerosis is left on the bench because the researcher completed the discovery phase and decided that was enough,” he says. “So the breakthrough never becomes a drug or test.”

During a May 5 panel discussion “Establishing Academic/Industry Partnerships” at Boston Children’s Hospital, Zetter called on his research colleagues to find business partners who bring the expertise and funding needed to close the research loop and bring medical advances to the bedside.
Zetter, a partnership veteran who has been involved with industry for his entire career and has consulted for more than 35 companies, offered these five tips:

1. Communicate with your institution’s tech transfer, business development or patenting office (in the case of Boston Children’s, the Technology and Innovation Development Office or TIDO) to better understand the relevance of your research. It can be difficult to see the larger picture from the lab bench. Do you have a target, potential drug or diagnostic, or an innovation that improves quality of life for patients? Do you have expertise that will be useful at a company? This knowledge is an important first step in building an industry partnership.

2. Disclose to your institution’s office early and often—long before you publish. Once you publish, you lose the ability to commercialize your discovery. Take, for example, Robert Perneczky, a professor at the Imperial College of London. As reported in the Harvard Business Review, Perneczky was unable to commercialize a diagnostic test for Alzheimer’s disease because he had published research about the biomarker the test was based on before a patent was filed. After publication, the discovery was in the public domain and not patentable, severely restricting his leverage with industry.

3. Track down a faculty member who has relevant industry experience. If you are unsure where to start, ask your tech transfer office to help you locate the right people. “Most faculty are happy to talk to you. Let them know how your discovery can help patients, and they will connect you with people who can help make it a reality.”

4. Network. Zetter recommends networking events such as those sponsored by the Harvard Biotech Club and Mass Bio to help build relationships with potential industry partners. The more people you know, the greater the odds of finding and building a successful partnership. “Nothing we do in science relies on networking as much as relationships with industry,” Zetter says. “You can’t build it and they will come. You have to get out and get to know people.”

5. Be aware of conflict-of-interest rules and how they apply to you. “Conflict-of-interest rules are not an impossible obstacle. Scientists have to understand them and work with them.”

Zetter urged scientists to focus on the ultimate goal: “Your science is going help people lead better lives. Everything else is just something you need to overcome to make that happen.” And that, according to Zetter, transforms researchers into crime fighters.

Learn more about forging relationships with companies.