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International Clinical Trials

Hidden Gems

Of late, ‘partnerships’ has been the buzz word of the day at conferences and in boardrooms. Strategic partnerships between large service providers and big pharmaceutical companies make sense, but how can the smaller players out there reap the rewards from a close partnership if a formal strategic option is not appropriate?

Specialist CROs and service providers to small and medium sized biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies are used to forging partnerships with clients, and realising the benefits that pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies can gain from their service providers, beyond the traditional services that are provided – extra benefits that are not immediately obvious. So what else can be done to work together beyond the traditional relationship? Before answering the question, it is important to share some of the feedback we get on a regular basis from our own clients.

The biggest problem is that sponsors are seen as customers, particularly within the bigger service providers. This is fully understandable when a company is dealing with a multinational service provider who has set procedures and project guidelines. The relationship can be very transactional, and everyone is working to tight budgets. What sponsors want is to be considered part of the team. They want someone from the service provider to work with them and to be considered one of their own. They want passion, and people who are working in partnership towards a successful result; they want the procedures to work for them, not against them.

How is it possible to achieve this utopian relationship between the sponsor and the service provider? Simple; it’s all about expectations. People don’t care how much is offered to them; they care about whether their expectations have been exceeded. To achieve a true partnership the secret is simple – service providers need to give them more than they expected.

As a service provider, in our rush to get picked, get shortlisted or build revenue, the instinct is to promise more for less. Perhaps it pays to promise less for more instead, to radically change expectations and to reset what it means to deliver on the promise of partnership. To understand the opportunity in more detail, see Figure 1.

The service provider/sponsor relationship is a package deal. Sponsors have a study or set of studies that they want to run, they package it up and contract some of this work out. The sponsor will also contract out the analysis plan, the tables and figures, and statistical report or CSR. Typically, this is everything on the right side (cost conscious side) of the value molecule.

The service provider will bid, win and complete this work. They’ll gain a huge amount of experience and knowledge while doing it and then they pass it back. And that’s the end of the story. Everything that’s been done on Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3 studies, every investment the sponsor has given, in both time and fees to the provider to get them up to speed, is potentially lost. They’ve lost all that experience. Why does this happen? It all comes down to the ‘Law of stuck’.

Here’s a good example of the Law of stuck. Is there a single person alive who is capable of boarding an aeroplane who then has become stuck in their seat because they didn’t know how to unbuckle the seatbelt? There is 100 per cent seatbelt understanding among air passengers today, so why do flight attendants still demonstrate how the seat belt works on every flight? Like so many policies in our organisations today, inertia has set in. The service provider delivers what they are asked to deliver as efficiently and as effortlessly as possible. They then hand back the data and move on. No value, no partnership and a truly forgettable transactional relationship.

I challenge the talented professionals out there within service providers to look up and see where they can exceed expectations with clients throughout the whole value molecule. They should then challenge the internal hierarchy to deliver those solutions and expertise to the sponsor.

Fresh Thinking

One approach to getting unstuck is the clean sheet of paper. Move your team to the coffee shop across the street, open a new location, completely rewrite your services handbook, throw out the standard terms and conditions and give your team the room to invent. What value can you add on the left side of the value molecule?

Sponsors should be ensuring that the wealth of experience and understanding of data gained from completing that traditional right hand side of the value molecule remains a valuable asset to the business post registration.

Service providers, depending on the size of the business, might not even be aware of the growing competitiveness in the market, the pressure for drug companies to keep the cost of drug development down, and the pressure for service providers to deliver results in shorter timeframes and at cheaper rates. Companies may not even be aware of the squeeze in margins that is occurring. What they should be aware of is that only the truly remarkable companies will survive, and those companies are investing today in offering a unique and innovative service. They recognise that true partnership comes from being there when the sponsor crosses the finish line. Adding the right support in the second half of the race is much more valuable than encouragement at the beginning – in essence this is the left hand side of the value molecule.

Lean or Learning

If you want remarkable kids then you invest in their education; if you want a remarkable business, your first investment should always be education. The three pillars of education to invest in are:

Personnel Education
Interpersonal, customer facing and opportunity management skills are all soft skills that should be pushed to the top of personal development programmes across all job functions. These allow teams to work more effectively; from a service provider point of view, they have more client time than business development personnel do, and as a sponsor, study personnel have better insight into what their requirements are than procurement or fi nance, as they are on the front line.

With these skills ingrained, operational employees from both the sponsor and the service provider are in a position where they are able to interact with each other more effectively, understand exactly what their needs might be, and suggest ideas where value can be added.

Product Education
I came from 20 years of selling items that go on a shelf. People buy products they know, they understand and they see. Pepsi Max came out to a certain sector of the market with a certain message attached to it and there was no confusion about what it did. Consultancy services are the same. They need to be boxed up. It needs to be a product so people can say, “Yes, I want that. How do I interact with it? What does it look like? What does it cost? What values can I deliver?” You need to educate your business to do that.

Partner Education
Whatever part in the clinical development process you play, get involved! Ask if you can have time to understand what is going on outside your sphere of influence, to understand the different processes. Ask for people’s opinions, and listen to what they have to say. Invest some time to sit in on a meeting and get some expert experience. Volunteer; make sure it is off the clock. Then contribute and be valuable once you have been given the opportunity.


If you are not looking to formalise a strategic partnership, but want to be considered as an innovative service provider or if you’re a sponsor looking to leverage the investment made in the early stages of your product development, the path to success is the same: go in search of the gems within the CRO/sponsor relationship in order to develop a true working partnership.

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Stephen Plotkin is the Sales and Marketing Director at MDSL International. Steve has over 20 years’ experience managing Sales and Marketing teams for several large FTSE100 companies, including Pepsico, Wilkinson Sword and latterly Georgia Pacific. Steve has more recently turned his focus to delivering Strategic Sales and Marketing support to SMEs.
Stephen Plotkin
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