Guest Column | April 3, 2023

Forming Meaningful Pharma–Academia Partnerships

By George Vratsanos, M.D., and Dawn Waterworth, Ph.D., Janssen Immunology


No matter the vantage point within the pharmaceutical industry, research and development (R&D) priorities are always evolving. In large pharma, investment in R&D is increasingly expensive relative to the number of new medicines brought to market. Similarly, smaller biotechnology companies are often facing funding challenges and must find new ways to accomplish the same lifesaving work with less capital and infrastructure. Despite this, the mission remains the same across this spectrum of life sciences companies — to bring transformational new medicines to market that will deeply impact patients’ lives for the better.

From the perspective of academia, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to produce high-profile science and to increasingly orient that science toward the improvement of public health. It is our belief that collaboration between industry and academia is key to continuing innovation and addressing unmet needs for patients.1

Academia And Industry: A Symbiotic Relationship

Both academia and the pharma industry are working toward a common goal of improving the health of patients through the translation of molecular and cellular insights into novel therapeutics.

While there is some crossover, academia typically has vast resources by way of basic research laboratories as well as patients, whereas the pharma industry’s role is typically to identify and validate novel molecular targets, find a way to appropriately modulate that target (small molecule, antibody, etc.), and subsequently design and implement clinical trials to evaluate the new drug’s efficacy and safety. These capabilities are critical in advancing basic research from academia and translating it into therapies that have the potential to significantly improve patients’ health.

This translation from basic research to a marketable product is primarily accomplished within industry, though academics are key partners in developing these medicines through their clinical network. Not only is there a natural incentive for academic researchers to want their insights to be translated to medicines that help patients but there are also some legal aspects to these collaborations. In 1980, the U.S. established the Bayh-Dole Act, which permits academic institutions that receive federal funding for research to pursue ownership of an invention and collaborate with industry if they make a discovery that could benefit the health of the American public.2

One of the more recent collaborations between academia and industry was recently highlighted by the successful development of COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic. Academic-pharmaceutical partnerships significantly contributed to the agility and fast-paced clinical development required to meet an urgent public health need.3

Pharmaceutical and academic partnerships also support the translational medicine life cycle.1 Academia can bring large resources to bear on target discovery and basic science research, such as molecular disease understanding. The pharmaceutical industry can tackle the next step in translational research, generating the molecules to perturb these pathogenic disease processes and identifying the most appropriate group of potential patients for that molecule.

Key Partnership Models

While the value of partnerships between industry and academia is clear, choosing a partner is not one size fits all. The best pharmaceutical–academic partnerships leverage the unique strengths of both parties. The traditional approach has been to identify an expert in the relevant disease or technology platform and set up a focused one-off study with them.

This approach makes sense whenever a proprietary molecule is involved, but if the questions are broader and do not involve a molecule, a consortium may be more appropriate. Moreover, Big Data from healthcare systems and biobanks is also increasingly being used to inform a wide range of steps in the drug discovery and development pipeline, requiring a different type of collaboration.

There are several potential models that can work for pharmaceutical-academic partnerships.

1. Industry-Sponsored Companies Run by Academia

How it Works: Through internal venture capital units and licensing agreements, a pharmaceutical company would enable academic principal investigators who have key expertise and strong track-records of success to drive innovation through strategic and risk-sharing arrangements.

Example: A consortium of companies, including Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Innovation – JJDC, has financed Nucleome Therapeutics Limited, a biotechnology company cofounded by Dr. Danuta Jeziorska, Professor James Davies, and Professor Jim Hughes.

2. Industry-Established Research Institutions

How it Works: A pharmaceutical company would establish research institutions with affiliations with academic centers with the goal of blending the academic culture of innovation with the expertise found inside Big Pharmaceutical companies.

Example: The Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF) is located near strong academic sites, including the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), University of California San Diego, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. GNF was originally founded and directed by TSRI Professor Peter Schultz.

3. Multi-Party Public-Private Partnership

How it Works: A consortium of pharmaceutical companies helps fund public academic institutions that can have large impacts on public health concerns.

Examples: FinnGen, an organization funded by 13 pharmaceutical companies and the Finnish government, provides access to health and molecular data for nearly 500,000 people.4 Additionally, the similarly sized U.K. Biobank is primarily government funded, but pharmaceutical consortiums have funded sequencing, imaging, and proteomics profiling of participants in the biobank, enriching the resource for all who use it.5 The well-established European Union-funded Innovative Medicine Initiative (IMI) program is another way that pharma and academia can come together in public-private partnerships and meet major challenges in a coordinated and effective way.6

4. Submission-Based Open-Door Collaborative Enterprises

How it Works: A pharmaceutical company uses an open-source competition and the submission of ideas and potential research tools to find and cultivate innovative, new ideas.

Example: Based in innovation hubs around the world, Johnson & Johnson Innovation aims to solve the world’s toughest health challenges and drive scientific breakthroughs that improve health for everyone, everywhere. Its regional teams include a diverse range of technical and business experts specialized in accelerating cutting-edge science and technology into potential healthcare solutions while offering a suite of capabilities for early-stage breakthrough innovations.

Partnership Will Define the Future

Academic-industry collaboration is here to stay — and often, it can lead to richer innovation than either side could generate alone. Well-structured collaborative agreements, in which the parties agree to share risks and rewards, can spur innovation and increase the chances that an idea for a new medicine, which otherwise might not translate into a molecule for clinical testing, enters clinical development with the goal of regulatory approval. 1 It is incumbent upon the pharmaceutical industry, biotech companies, and academia to partner for the greater good, with our collective focus on patient benefits.


  1. Myshko, D. New Models for Academic Partnerships. PharmaVoice. 2014. Accessed October 2022.
  2. Rosenblatt, M. How Academia and the Pharmaceutical Industry Can Work Together. Ann Am Thorac Soc Vol 10, No 1, pp 31–38, Feb 2013.
  3. Thomas, C. et al. Playing Well with Others! Initiating and sustaining successful collaborations between Industry, Academia and Government. Curr Top Med Chem. 2014; 14(3): 291–293.
  4. Kurki, M.I., Karjalainen, J., Palta, P. et al. FinnGen provides genetic insights from a well-phenotyped isolated population. Nature 613, 508–518 (2023).

About The Authors:

George Vratsanos, M.D., is vice president, translational science and medicine (TSM) at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. In this role, he is responsible for leading the TSM team, integrating closely with both the Discovery and Clinical Development teams, and fostering new ideas and methodologies that deliver on the Janssen portfolio strategy. A rheumatologist by training, Vratsanos earned his M.D. from New York University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in rheumatology/immunology at Yale University. He holds a B.S. and an M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from Columbia University. Follow him on LinkedIn here.

Dawn Waterworth, Ph.D., is head of immunomics in translational sciences for immunology at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. In this role, she leads the team that provides human multi-omic data to support the immunology portfolio. This team drives strategic investment in human genetic datasets; evaluates key molecular platforms, such as proteomics and single-cell transcriptomics; generates this molecular data from clinical trial samples; and provides computational support to development teams. Waterworth received her Ph.D. from Imperial College London and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at University College London. After a brief time as an assistant professor at Rutgers University, she worked at GlaxoSmithKline for many years before joining Janssen in 2020. Follow her on LinkedIn here.