The Mass General Research Institute's Strategic Alliances Initiative seeks to change the way that academic and industry work together to develop new drugs, diagnostics and devices by enabling long-term, multi-investigator efforts across the translational cycle.

When the Mass General Research Institute launched in 2015, Gabriela Apiou, PhD, was appointed to lead a new initiative to increase interactions between researchers at Mass General and biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

She developed and now leads a groundbreaking program called the Strategic Alliances Initiative that seeks to transform the collaborative model from one-off agreements between labs and companies to program-wide collaborations involving multiple labs and teams of investigators.

Through four years of hard work and development, these efforts are bearing fruit with the launch of six thematic research programs that are currently being pitched to industry, as well as the novel training and education program: Bridging Academia with Industry.

We sat down with Dr. Apiou to learn more a bout the Strategic Alliances Initiative and the Bridging Academia with Industry training program.

Q: What drew you to this field of translational science?

A: I learned early on in my scientific career about the importance of incorporating clinical need into fundamental science and technology development. I also have experience working in industry and academia, so I can help both sides find the common language and better understand each other.

Academia and industry need to work together to move discoveries along the translational path—from fundamental science to proof of concept to development and transfer to market and patient care.

Q: What skills are needed for this new discipline?

A: Scientists who perform multidisciplinary research, understand the scientific, business and operational principles underlying the translation process and are willing to work together. There's an absolute need for team science.

I always tell people, "You are better off sharing. You will be better off if you can bring the right collaborators on board and empower them."

Gabriela Apiou, PhD
Director of Strategic Alliances, Mass General Research Institute

Q: How did you start building this initiative?

A: Listening and learning from many of my colleagues in academia and industry, and involving them in the process at every stage.

The first step was to understand what research was taking place here, not in the classic "project inventory" way, but in a "problem-driven" way. We needed to see the whole picture.

Once we understood the problems worth solving, we moved to build dedicated cross-functional teams to address them. This model resonates with my experience in industry, where collaborating with individual labs often didn't allow us to develop comprehensive solutions to complex health care problems. I realized I needed to bring all the players together to align on the key questions to be addressed, and then work together to build a solution-driven research plan.

The teams leverage basic science, translational research, clinical care and access to high-quality patient-derived samples to address key areas of medical need in epigenetics, cancer immunology, neuroinflammation in neurodegeneration, rare diseases, cardiometabolics and the microbiome.

We have developed and launched programs in each of these areas, working with over 130 investigators, MDs and PhDs, across 18 departments and centers at Mass General. All of them combine biological, medical and technological input from multiple labs under specific themes, allowing for direct and reverse translation.

The teams have introduced the programs to colleagues from pharmaceutical and biotech companies, and we continue to engage in discussions regarding potential collaborative efforts.

We are pretty proud of this work so far. We are especially impressed with the investigator community. This has been gradual and sometimes difficult work, but those people who are invested in the vision have worked hard to continue on this path.

Q: What makes your program unique?

A: The program is an integral part of the Mass General Research Institute and based in the Office of the Scientific Director. This is very important since it is about science—actually about translational sciences!

We are changing the thinking—you're not just working with one investigator in a sponsored research agreement but collaborating with researchers in multiple disciplines and areas of expertise to solve relevant health care problems.

We are also changing the scales—we are looking for multi-year, multi-lab, multi-project collaborations with industry.

We're incorporating early market pull into our research planning from internal sources within the Partners Healthcare Innovation Office and externally from our Strategic Alliances advisors, who provide expertise and experience in business development and commercialization.

Q: What's next for the Strategic Alliances Initiative?

A: We aim to have the first collaboration with industry in place over the coming year. I think this is critical to show that the academia-industry team science model works and it's worth it.

Q: How else are you working to promote translational science?

A: We started a novel translational research training program—called Bridging Academia with Industry—to teach our investigators the language and culture of collaborating with industry and what it takes to translate a new idea into a new diagnostic or therapeutic.

The course has been co-developed, is co-directed and co-taught by amazing faculty from academia and industry, and includes lectures, case studies and a project competition. At the end of the course, one team will win a one-year award to support proof-of-concept research and the creation of a go-to-market plan.

Q: What advice would you give to a scientist who wants start working with industry?

A: First, I ask them: Why? You need to know why you want to work with industry and what type of industry. There may be a million reasons, like you have a colleague or friend in industry and want to collaborate with them, or because you have an idea that you want to test. You have to know your why.

The other advice is to find a clinical partner—even before you go to industry—to help you think through the clinical significance of the problem you are trying to solve. And the other way around—if you are a clinician, do you have a basic scientist you can collaborate with?

I always tell people, "You are better off sharing. You will be better off if you can bring the right collaborators on board and empower them."