James Sabry - Global Head of Pharma Partnering

External innovation opens new doors for advancing science

Published 06 January 2020

“How we decide to embrace external innovation will determine our future, and the future of the health of patients,” says James Sabry. Since he took the helm as Global Head of Pharma Partnering a little over a year ago his enthusiasm about the tremendous potential of external innovation has only increased, and for good reason.

James exudes excitement when he shares how Roche has one of the most robust and promising pipelines in the industry. That we have teams of brilliant scientists and researchers working all around the world on innovative medicines and treatments using state-of-the-art methods. But in the high-stakes game of research and development, it is not enough. Roche must embrace external innovation to drive progress and gain expertise in new areas to stay on the cusp of advances in healthcare. If we ignore the incredible technologies and therapies being pioneered outside of Roche, we risk losing out on some of the most dramatic advancements in human health.

With the opportunities and challenges healthcare is currently facing, strong collaborations are more critical than ever before.

James cannot help but be visionary when it comes to the role of partnering and the amazing opportunities it offers to an already robust pipeline. “There is significant innovation happening within the company, but there is also important innovation happening in the global biotech sector. What excites me most about partnering is opening up new doors for Roche to walk through.”

And being open to outside innovation is critical for success. When it comes to Roche’s pipeline, almost 50% of it is derived from external partnerships. In 2018 alone, Pharma Partnering signed 107 agreements to acquire, license and collaborate with some of the best companies and academic institutions all around the world.

James with Pharma Partnering colleagues

The global team comprises of 120 people, the majority of them scientists. Based in Basel, South San Francisco, London, Boston, Shanghai and Tokyo, the team works closely with internal R&D and late-stage teams, gathering insights from our scientists and commercial experts regarding what would add value to our portfolio and increase our expertise.

“An important element of partnering is deciding what we want to work on. That is the subject of a rich discussion between us and the R&D, Product Development and commercial teams,” says James. Different teams have various priorities and areas of expertise which liven those conversations, but there are specific areas of high interest for Roche when looking for potential new partners.

And finally, as well as designing and negotiating deals in the best interests of both sides, the Pharma Partnering team also manages more than 220 existing alliances.

Relationships are key

A productive partnership is like a successful marriage; both sides should be nurtured, supported and feel listened to. The entrepreneurial mindset of partners combined with the rich expertise of Roche can make the marriage a fruitful one, but only if the foundation is rock solid.

For these reasons, James and his team start from the very beginning, even before anything is agreed upon. “We bring in our best scientists and commercial experts early on to create deep and lasting partnerships that go beyond the initial deal,'' says James. He explains that as conversations proceed, the potential partner has their own alliance manager that remains throughout the relationship to ensure a lasting marriage, even after the wedding bells have stopped ringing. It is this special relationship that ensures an enduring partnership for the long run.

The curation of our portfolio

James uses the term ‘curation’ to describe how Pharma Partnering decides on which potential partners fit best into the Roche portfolio: “We curate to open up further possibilities for our science. For example, in 2018 we acquired Tusk Therapeutics to further expand our own oncology pipeline with a preclinical first-in-class anti-CD25 antibody that depletes immunosuppressive regulatory T-cells. Another example is the new collaboration between Genentech and Xencor, which secured us rights to a preclinical IL-15 cytokine therapeutic, an immune signaling protein, that expands the population of anti-tumor cytotoxic T cells.”

The Roche pRED Innovation Centres

About Partnering at Roche

At Roche Pharma Partnering we are passionate about science, regardless of where it comes from. Through partnerships we can build a better future together with treatments that make a real difference to patients. Discover how we value external innovation as highly as our own internally derived discoveries to establish collaborations as the cornerstone of our R&D strategy.

Partnerships are essential to enhance our science and complement our research, but they are also an opportunity to explore uncharted areas that launch us into exciting territory—which comes with its own challenges. Untested innovations are always risky, but that is where transformative new therapies come from. “Important advances like cellular therapy, personalised cancer vaccines, gene therapy or bacterial therapeutics are all Roche areas of expertise today, but started out with partnerships,” says James.

It is easy to get enthusiastic about the future when your job is to stay at the vanguard of cutting-edge innovation and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the treatment of human diseases. “When you talk to the scientists and entrepreneurs that are starting these companies about their vision of the future of healthcare, they have some pretty wild ideas. Sometimes a bit too wild,” he laughs. “There is no doubt that the future of healthcare will be very different than what we have now, and I find that incredibly inspiring for Roche and for patients.”

Tags: Innovation, Partnering, We are Roche