July 24, 2019

Choosing Collaborators in Healthcare: 3 Takeaways After 10 Years of Collaboration

It was time. In 2008, we knew that Exact Sciences needed a trusted and innovative collaborator to help propel our mission forward. I met Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist and researcher Dr. David Ahlquist while grappling with the decision to become Exact Sciences’ next CEO. He delivered a compelling argument for a DNA-based stool test that would help screen millions of patients for colorectal cancer. Dr. Ahlquist highlighted recent advances in detection of the disease with real potential to build on Exact Sciences’ previous approaches to stool-based screening.

That meeting changed the trajectory of the entire company. More than two million people have used the test we developed together to screen for colorectal cancer since 2014, demonstrating what happens when you have the right collaborator.

A decade later, we continue looking to companies who stand out in their industries – most recently, Pfizer and Epic – to discover complementary strengths. Together, we move the needle on our shared vision for improving patient outcomes.

Advancing early cancer detection takes teamwork, and bringing together the right players in healthcare moves us all forward. As we mark 10 years of working together, our Mayo Clinic collaboration continues to teach us valuable lessons.

1. Find a collaborator with vision.

Early in the development of Cologuard®, we started each week alongside the Mayo team, gathered around a whiteboard listing the 10 biggest hurdles in front of us. Together, we conquered them one by one, only to find more obstacles the next week. Together, we celebrated the wins and expressed disappointment at the losses. So often, the challenge in front of us felt insurmountable. But we never quit. An underlying ambition drove our work: Dr. Ahlquist’s vision that this test could be a first step on the road to a universal cancer screening test, the holy grail of diagnostics.

Five years later, our screening test for colorectal cancer received FDA approval and a preliminary national coverage decision from CMS on the same day, making history as the first product to go through parallel review with both agencies.

Even as we developed our first test, our teams began collaborating to get a head start on identifying biomarkers for the 15 deadliest cancers. We completed identification of biomarkers for each of them this year. These biomarkers represent the first step in exploring potential blood-based diagnostic tests to further our mission to help detect cancer earlier, when it matters most.

Mayo Clinic and Exact Sciences share a vision for helping people detect cancer earlier. It’s critical to evaluate collaborators on what drives them forward. A great collaboration leverages the big dreams and unrelenting goals that push both organizations to work harder, innovate, and solve problems.

2. Find a collaborator who won’t take short cuts.

We understand the gravity of our work. Cancer impacts patients, their families and community in deep and sometimes, unfortunately, devastating ways. It motivates our teams to remain dedicated to discovery and innovation backed by rich, thoroughly vetted science.

Our teams knew that shifting the colorectal cancer screening paradigm required our evidence generation to be of the highest quality to prove our test the ‘real deal’ to regulators, payors, healthcare providers and patients. It led us to pursue a 10,000 patient, head-to-head study, which remains the largest privately funded study of its kind for colorectal cancer screening. We knew the cost it required in time and resources. But we felt it important to give healthcare providers and patients solid evidence to feel confident in choosing Cologuard.

A natural sense of urgency exists in the fight against cancer. But it needs balancing by taking every step necessary to bring the best quality to the public. Put in the effort to find collaborators willing to take the time to get there.

3. Find a collaborator who shares your values.

Mayo Clinic stands out as a renowned leader in healthcare. Our newest key collaborators, Epic Systems and Pfizer, continually advance their industries. The people within organizations make all the difference. In each of these cases, our team found that those organizations share our core values – innovation, integrity, teamwork, accountability, and quality.

These shared values drive us to become more than commercial collaborators. We get our hands dirty together – and the roots of our collaboration only grow stronger. In January, Dr. Paul Limburg joined us from the Mayo Clinic as our Chief Medical Officer. Later this year, Exact Sciences plans to open its own office in Rochester, MN, allowing us to further our collaboration with Mayo Clinic even more efficiently.

The company we keep reflects our character. Before you enter into a collaboration or strategic partnership, engage in the difficult discussions that ensure your work ethic and values align.

Now, 10 years after our collaboration with Mayo Clinic began, the teams reflect on what evolved into a unique and transformative relationship. It gives us hope that Dr. Ahlquist’s dream and big vision for a pan-cancer screening test may one day become a reality. All because we recognized early on that our accomplishments together far exceed what we could do alone.