What does big pharma look for in start-ups and innovators?

By Duncan Young, Associate Director, Academic Alliances, and Vincenzo Garzya, Project Management Director, from AstraZeneca

Biotech abstract

Great science is the foundation of all innovation in life sciences, and so, as a global biopharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca’s focus is always to “follow the science”. This is one of our core values; it determines how we work and guides our decision-making.

However, we recognise that innovation doesn’t happen in isolation, so we collaborate with others around the world to push the boundaries of science to deliver life-changing medicines for patients. Our collaborations and strategic partnerships are testament to the strong belief in our shared vision and the potential of bringing together our scientific expertise with that of the experts and entrepreneurs working in universities, industry and research institutes around the world. Innovation, wherever it can be found, that helps us do something we can’t do or represents an area that the ‘Pharma-5-to-10-years-from-now’ needs to be active in, is something we are always interested in – and if you have great science, be it novel drug targets, new approaches to known targets, screening and discovery technologies, innovative drug modalities and platforms, drug delivery and devices, data analysis and digital health technologies, and more, then we will definitely want to talk to you.

Great science also has to be the foundation of the alliances we forge to support our R&D activities. We published our critical approach to the assessment and management of our portfolio under the ‘5R’ framework in 2014, and the same criteria can be used in assessment of other opportunities. The 5R criteria ensure we take forward the most attractive projects, regardless of source, and provide a framework for consistent and objective feedback to our partners, whether we decide to move forward with the opportunity, or not.  The ‘R’ stands for ‘right’ – determining the right therapeutics target, designing the drug to reach the right tissue, selecting the right patients, achieving the right level of safety, and determining the right commercial potential.

But is ground-breaking science enough?

Each large pharma company will have their own areas of interest for future technologies; for example, you can download our partnering brochure to find out more about our focus therapeutic areas and technology interests. The ‘partnering’ section of our website also includes examples of themes relevant to our Innovative Medicines – IMED – biotech unit. These represent some of the next generation technologies AstraZeneca is exploring to remain at the cutting edge delivering life-changing medicines.

However, there are also other aspects that are important in assessing a new potential partner, and it is useful for life sciences start-ups to bear these in mind when progressing with your innovation. What we look for as well as great science can be summarised broadly under the following headings:


It is vital to have an understanding of the broad context of your technology and its position in the market landscape – and, above all, what differentiates it from the competition. It can sometimes be difficult when working closely in one field to be fully aware (or unbiased!) about approaches outside your immediate field that may offer alternative solutions. But being able to clearly explain why your technology, device, drug target or molecule is better than not only what is currently available, but also what else is in development and may soon become available, is vital. Pharma is interested in technologies that offer differentiation from their competitors, so highlighting this and doing the extra ground work and research to be able to demonstrate differentiation really adds value.


How have you shown your innovation can have a real impact in the context of disease and the patient? This typically involves testing the technology in models of disease or real-life situations. If you have a new chemical drug, have you tested its effects in known models of disease and shown that the drug has promising physiochemical properties to warrant further development? If you have a wearable technology that can collect a myriad of data points about the wearer’s lifestyle and health, it’s great – but can you show that data can be used, interpreted and actioned with real therapeutic or diagnostic value?

Route to market

This will vary greatly depending on the technology, but in the healthcare sector you need to be able to communicate clearly how your product will navigate the regulatory pathways to approval and registration on the market. Sometimes this might require external insight for those only involved at the earliest stages of innovation, but being able to answer questions on how a drug may be given, how a clinical trial would be designed, which patient population would be targeted and how they are selected; how will your technology be administered, and who will pay for it – shows that from the earliest stages you are thinking forward to getting your innovation out there, and helps address some of the points around differentiation too.

Good collaboration

It seems a truism or stating the obvious, but there’s a reason marriage guidance counsellors exist. People should communicate more, but in reality it’s an easy thing to let slip as workloads mount or other pressures come into play. When working with new technology partners, it’s vital to ensure you share the same vision and goals from the start, clearly communicate these, and keep that dialogue open as scientific, business or timeline hurdles get in the way. Be clear about what you want from the partner and what your pressures are – as a start-up you may be keen to get non-dilutive funding to support some work to validate the technology and get some case studies under your belt; but there is no point pushing forward without funding if that will mean you project grinds to a halt months later. Equally, it may be the intangible benefits you are after – working with a partner that can offer access to expertise and insight in areas that you don’t have. We look for like-minded innovators with whom we can forge constructive, open collaborations and both incentivised to a win-win outcome.

Duncan Young, Associate Director, Academic Alliances, and Vincenzo Garzya, Project Management Director, from AstraZeneca are mentoring start-ups at the upcoming Venture Creation Weekend, organised by the Cambridge Judge Business School’s Entrepreneurship Centre on 23 – 25 June. For more information and to register your attendance, please have a look at the CJBS Entrepreneurship Centre web pages >

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