A few months past the culmination of a 31-year career at Pfizer, Francis Dumont has this seminal thought on drug development and manufacturing outsourcing:
“I’m tired of the word ‘strategic.’”
That registers as a surprise considering his final position at Pfizer was Senior Director, External Drug Product Supply Strategy.
Actually, at times Dumont sounds like a philosopher.
During our extended discussion, he references articles he’s authored and panel discussions where he’s expounded on outsourcing. In fact, his disdain for the word strategic might very well serve as an exercise in linguistic philosophy. [For the uninitiated, the study of how problems can be solved by the careful study of language.]
However, this long-tenured professional leaves nothing languishing in the realm of thought experiments. He’s all about real-world applications in drug development and manufacturing outsourcing.
“I thought I had the answer to the best way to look at outsourcing many times, only to find out when you have a different line of vision into that external collaboration, your answers will change. It depends on how and from where you are looking,” Dumont explains.
And a “strategic relationship, whatever that means,” he says, isn’t necessarily what you are pursuing.
What’s Really Important?
Dumont held numerous positions during his time at Pfizer and experienced the width and breadth of the company.
He has “crunched analytical testing to develop new dosage forms for a commercial product,” had assignments working with external partners on “a very specific, one-off technology,” and led large, team-managed external relationships with CDMOs.
When it comes to working with those external partners, Dumont says the word strategic “gets tossed about so deliberately or innocuously.”
Why, he wonders, is there so much focus on what it means to be strategic, and then trying to apply that to what you are trying to accomplish specifically?
Instead, individuals and organizations should specifically consider, for example, if they are looking at an outsourcing situation with “R&D eyes,” and are they receiving the flexibility needed from an external partner at that juncture. At other times, colleagues in commercial will have a very different view on what that external partnership needs to be in practice, Dumont says.
“If we do want to think ‘strategically,’ think about what it means for the customer to be considered the CDMO’s partner,” as well as the other way around.
Overall, though, Dumont suggests most biopharma organizations need to “take a step off that strategic soapbox.”
He’s always strived for mutually beneficial relationships without getting bogged down in what a strategic partnership is “even before you go into preliminary discussions with suppliers.”
There is, however, no overlooking that when a CDMO gets wind of an opportunity to partner with a Big Pharma, as opposed to a start-up biotech or even a mid-sized, established drug sponsor, an enhanced pliability is often more strongly evidenced.
Mutuality can be a steep hill when one side has leverage in the negotiation of which.
Dumont takes that subject head on.
“I'll admit Pfizer – or any big company – has a lot of expectations of their partners,” he says.
“It's from the scientists, the project managers, all the way to the CFO, and all those players may have different expectations. So having a firm understanding upfront of what it could mean to be mutually beneficial is important,” and that, he avers, can and is applied to any sized customer and CDMO.
In other words, understand what needs to be mutually accomplished in practice. Let the strategic theorizing rest for later.
What about times when his “mutually beneficial” theory revolves around very real financial considerations?
“If finances are ultimately a key driver of certain outsourcing deals, then understanding that fundamental basis can help the sponsor and CDMO to a beneficial point for the establishment of a win-win relationship,” Dumont says.
“None of this should feel unidirectional,” he continues, “but I'll be the first to admit that having been with a big company, we can take that approach, and find vendors that are willing to just say yes to everything.”
But problems lurk when assuming that attitude – for both sides.
“I’ve found those types of relationships often don't work out the way you anticipate,” Dumont says.
“From my perspective, it can create a lot of tension and difficulties. Nobody wants to hear everything is urgent or everything is the top priority, or on the other side, that everything is doable and there’s no problems to consider.”
On the one side, a CDMO can’t deliver what it can’t deliver.
For the sponsor, as stated most succinctly in a recent Outsourced Pharma Live webinar, “You don’t want to be the worst client to work with.”
There’s the adage among experienced CDMO professionals that service providers are always happy to bring in Big Pharma (and their pools of money), until they actually do.
Does this suggest the relationships are strained because they aren’t viewed strategically?
For Dumont, that’s the wrong question. What the relationship isn’t, is mutual. And that holds for whether there’s a desire for a long-term relationship or one-off transactions.
As this humble editor has often proclaimed, there’s nothing wrong with what others disparagingly dub “transactional relationships.”
The services, terms and conditions of sponsor-provider contracts should foremost be clear, and provide for a fair and mutually benefiting business relationship.
Perhaps that is the real strategy, then: Get the specific work transactions right for both sides.
Back to Dumont, he wraps up this segment of our conversation with a reminder that today it’s not always the sponsor who is the behemoth.
We are in the age of “Big CDMO” versus virtual and emerging biopharma sponsors.
Dumont believes what we’ve discussed here – the focus on mutuality in practice over strategy – is thus more important than ever.
But always the thinker (if not the strategist), he ends with another scenario.
“If on the other hand, you have two large companies [Big Pharma and Big CDMO] that are both so inflexible in their expectations, meaning contractually, day-to-day operations, it will benefit neither side.”
But again, no matter size or assumed leverage, if you can’t arrive at concise and mutual frameworks, you’ll never have a chance to build a successful outsourcing partnership, call it strategic, mutually beneficial, transactional, or whatever you want.