Optimizing Outsourcing Options for Small Sponsors
November 10, 2016 Laurie Meehan, Social Media Manager Polaris Compliance Consultants, Inc.
What can small sponsors do to secure the outsourcing resources they need as large CROs form strategic alliances with Big Pharma?
Partnerships between large pharmaceutical companies and large CROs have become the norm. The advantages for sponsor companies include shared risk, knowledge transfer, dedicated resources, shorter time to market, and the ability to implement the massive data integration that clinical development requires. Strategic alliances are arguably as advantageous for their outsourcing partners, providing a steady pipeline of work that’s larger in scope and longer in duration than is typical under traditional arrangements.
Strategic Partnerships in Big Pharma: Implications for the Rest
Advantages for one segment of the industry can introduce disadvantages for another. Alliances among the large players increase competition for top-drawer CRO resources. Smaller sponsors may find it more difficult to receive the quality of service and level of commitment they might otherwise expect. A large CRO is likely to assign their most talented personnel to projects associated with their strategic partners. And if a partner study were to run into trouble, it would be hard to fault a CRO for pulling experienced staff members off a smaller project in order to help out with the big client. Though a reputable CRO wouldn’t jeopardize the relationship with the smaller client, their responsiveness to routine requests might suffer. It might take longer to get a question answered, receive requested documentation, making the job of vendor oversight difficult.
Though selecting a large, well-established CRO at the outset may have seemed like the safe bet, what do you do if you’re a small sponsor or biotech start-up who is dissatisfied with the level of service you’re receiving?
“Let’s Bring It In-House”
Put off by a negative experience, many companies decide to curtail outsourcing, and bring functions like monitoring and project management in-house.
This response is understandable, but it rarely goes well. There’s good reason to outsource study functions to a CRO, especially if you’re small, or new, or both. Mid-study is a terrible time to realize you’re in over your head. You may find it difficult to contract with the service providers you want in the timeframe you need them. Services you would have preferred be performed by a single company may now have to be farmed out piecemeal, which has the overhead of multiple contracts and makes vendor oversight more difficult to manage. You don’t have time to go through a thorough qualification process. You’re not in a good bargaining position; you’re trying to buy a new car after they’ve towed away your old one. And now you have to rely on your new service provider(s) – the ones who may not be your first choice, whom you had to choose in haste, whom you didn’t get to thoroughly vet – to jump in midstream and pick up a study that is already in trouble.
Options for Small Sponsors and Start-ups
So what’s the answer? You have several good options we’ve seen work well for smaller organizations.
- (1) Go smaller. Look beyond traditional outsourcing choices and consider selecting smaller vendors who may well be in a better position to focus on individual projects and give priority to shorter term engagements. After all, a project that’s small to a big CRO will be comparatively big to a small CRO.
- (2) Go long-term. Consider establishing strategic partnerships of your own. Doing so would increase the expertise and technology to which you’d have ready access, and could extend your global reach.
- (3) Go big, but go vigilantly. There’s a reason companies hire big, reputable CROs. ‘Big’ means the CRO has an impressive set of resources at its disposal. ‘Reputable’ means it has a proven record of successfully completing studies, producing reliable data, and preserving subject safety. Smaller sponsors can still take advantage of everything a big CRO offers if they can commit to conducting very strict vendor oversight. They need to closely monitor the quality of the work the CRO performs, frequently assess adherence to the many written study plans, and make sure deadlines are being met. Service contracts should guarantee a certain level of responsiveness (by specifying maximum turn-around times, for example), especially for those requests that enable these oversight activities.
Qualification is Key
While the key to Option 3 is effective vendor management, the key to Options 1 and 2 is effective vendor qualification. Resources are tight in a small company, so you need to direct them where your exposure is greatest, where they’ll do the most good. What could be more essential to the success of your study than choosing the right company to conduct it? Many sponsors conduct on-site vendor audits. That’s good. That’s necessary. But it’s not sufficient. To consistently choose the best possible CRO for your study, sponsors need to:
Strategic partnerships among large companies have reshaped the research environment for industry players of every size. Small and mid-sized companies who take the time to review current outsourcing arrangements, assess alternative models, and thoroughly qualify new vendors and partners will fare the best.
- Formally document and maintain vendor selection criteria and qualification process
- Form selection committees that represent all sides of your business – finance, contracting, operations, finance, QA, data management, pharmacovigilance, biostatistics, etc.
- Conduct on-site audits with well-trained, well-prepared QA auditors
- Track the resulting CAPA activities
- Ensure outstanding issues are resolved before the contract is signed
- Periodically re-evaluate vendors to make sure they can continue to deliver the same level of quality they’ve delivered in the past
Share your experience with CROs below. Did you work with a large or a small vendor? What influenced your choice?
Ms. Meehan is the social media manager for Polaris Compliance Consultants, Inc. She writes the company blog and eNewsletter, manages the company website, interacts with clients and colleagues on social media platforms, and manages the company’s SOPs and internal training. Prior to joining Polaris in 2008, Ms. Meehan worked at a major telecommunication R&D company where she provided consulting and training on telecom services, and spoke at numerous industry forums. She holds a BA in Computer Science from La Salle University and an MS in Computer Science from Drexel University.