Driving pharmaceutical research – Industry partnership (Pharm. Nelson Okwonna)



 The pharmaceutical industry, unlike other knowledge-intense industries, is continuously challenged to create new and better drug molecules and formulations that alleviate the sufferings of humanity. Malaria, for example poses a serious threat as new and effective molecules must be found before the parasites develop resistance to the available therapy.

The goal of pharmaceutical research is to achieve product and process innovation and to inculcate such innovations to the final product which is presented to a needy patient. From the industry perspective, this innovation is critical for retaining market share and hence, profitability. For research institutions like universities and biomedical research centres, the development of innovation should be the vocation, besides education.

Pharmaceutical research institutions in Nigeria, despite the challenges, perform an incredibly large amount of research, because of our very high population. Yet, most of these research projects are going nowhere. The problem is the deficiency of an intention to produce a product.

With increased need for funding, research institutions all over the world are increasingly embracing the private sector. In Nigeria, however, the requisite knowledge and skill set required for such research – industry partnerships are not yet common place. The skill set required from such a knowledge transfer officer is diverse and this is the major limit. The balance of academic, legal and business management capacity is most essential.

The process flow for such an effective partnership is as shown below:

  1. A.  Organisational Vision

Management of research institutions must make the attainment of such research industry partnership a part of the organisational goals. This should not be seen to contradict the primary goal of education in universities. Education in this sense must be made to be relevant, the model of education should be such that the knowledge developed from educational pursuits should be a solution material in the society. Once it is, and managed appropriately, it becomes raw material for Industry. The School of Pharmacy at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, for example produces more than a hundred pharmacy graduates yearly. When the academic research activities of these students and their teachers cannot be coordinated to present specific solutions then there is the gap of a strategic vision.

  1. B.  Design of the Regulatory Framework

The intellectual property provisions of some universities and research institutions, at present,  does not allow for the nature of the collaboration that it is suggested in this article. Management should articulate the needs of the research faculty and industry and fashion effective bridges that assures the interests of all parties. it is evident from the few success stories we have in Nigeria that promoting innovation and disseminating new knowledge can be compatible, provided that intellectual property issues are understood and managed professionally. Interaction on these points can be facilitated by tools such as the CREST decision tree, model contracts such as the UK’s Lambert agreements, or guidance such as the Danish document on contacts, contracts and codices. The Responsible Partnering Initiative, developed by 4 major European university and industry associations (EIRMA, EUA, PROTON, EARTO), presents key insights into how effective research collaboration can be created.



  1. C.  The Design and Development of a Research Industry Interface

In some institutions in Nigeria, this exists as the consultancy department manned by staff with both academic, legal and business backgrounds. The consultancy department’s role is to harness, coordinate and sell the products of the organisation. In research institutions, these products are applied knowledge. When integrated well with the strategic focus of the management and a proper understanding of the factors at play, a department like this can earn a lot of revenue for the institution and more importantly, the society is not deprived of the immense potentialities that exist.  The activities of such a department would include:

  • Establishing and maintaining databases of potential clients;
  • Making informal and prospective contacts with clients;
  • Producing lists of potential products for commercialisation;
  • Organising fairs, seminars and open doors;
  • Negotiating terms of contracts;
  • Providing support for the costing of products and services;
  • Follow-up of research with commercial potential;
  • Assessing economic viability of spin-off projects;
  • Establishing a network of potential venture capitalists;
  • Acting as a broker between the academic inventor, venture capitalists and interest firms, in the negotiation of terms of contracts.


Motivational Structure

The strategy for implementing research-industry partnerships should be such that provides both immediate and future benefits for the researcher. For the average researcher, such motivation must not only be financial when the products yield money but must also allow for job promotions.  At present, I am not aware of any institution that has effectively integrated this motivational structure in Nigeria. The pathway for commercializing products of research could be either of the below:

  1. Traditional Consultancy Service: One-off arrangements
  2. Licensing
  3. Spin-offs
  4. Joint Ventures

The design of the motivational structure should account for each of the pathway that could be taken for a particular product.


From my experience in the field of pharmaceutical research development, much more than ever, the challenges are easier to surmount. There exists a huge opportunity which we will do well to seize; the terrain could be tough and the rewards uncertain. Miracles may not happen but they sure would not when we don’t try.