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What to Consider Before Partnering with a Young Tech Company


Takeda Pharmaceuticals uses this rubric to know what it’s getting into. You can, too.

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When Nicole Mowad-Nassar was a Takeda Pharmaceuticals marketing head, she partnered with a “very exciting” tech company. She thought the alliance could unlock untold potential before a product launch.

It didn’t work out that way. “I had an absolute train wreck because I didn’t understand the scalability of the digital company that we were working with,” she said yesterday, Oct. 3, during the first day of the Digital Pharma East conference in Philadelphia.

Now, Mowad-Nasaar—Takeda’s vice president and head of US business operations and external partnerships—knows better. She and Takeda have since developed a rubric for evaluating up-and-coming tech outfits before joining forces. And she shared that guide with her audience, although the rules apply beyond pharma and into healthcare at large.

The grading system, called SAFER, considers a number of factors to paint a picture of a given tech startup. It might not provide definite answers for executives and managers, but it can arm them with the insights to make an informed decision.

Scalability: What is the tech company’s infrastructure like? Can it handle necessary growth?

Acumen: How about the board of advisers? Some of these panels include founders who had a bright idea but might lack other key tools. Are the leaders of this company experienced, capable, and with it?

Funding: After her first failure, Mowad-Nasaar found her biggest takeaway in this area. Know how much financing the company has secured and who is writing its checks. If your organization provides most of the startup’s money, that is a risk you must understand. “It doesn’t mean that you have to run away,” she said. “But you might want to look at investing in these companies differently.” That could mean equity through the venture capital wing.

Effective: Can this company get the job done? If its products or services do not work, that is an obvious red flag.

Regulatory: Does this company live in the same world as a pharma or healthcare business? Tackling challenges posed by the FDA is no easy task. Digital newcomers that comprehend this and know how to handle regulators are of great value.

Of these criteria, Mowad-Nassar deems funding, scalability, and regulatory knowhow the most critical to gauge. Those factors go a long way toward determining risk tolerance, she said.

Healthcare decision-makers must also look out for fibs, she said. Because, as noted in an earlier presentation, “everybody lies” in the digital realm.

Yet Mowad-Nassar made clear the reasons for forging these partnerships. She pointed to a number of successful unions that have aimed to do everything from bringing patients to their doctors to speeding up clinical trials. Apple, she noted, is poised to become a leader in digital health due to its marriages with the right companies.

Further, pharma and other healthcare companies should not rely on outside innovation alone. Glenn Butcher, senior director of global cystic fibrosis marketing for Vertex Pharmaceuticals, later said in-house breakthroughs are critical to rounding out the effort.

“Bringing those 2 together,” he said, “I think that would be a very powerful concept.”

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