Marrying big pharma and fast-moving startups can be a challenge.

Bayer’s startup accelerator program, G4A, has evolved a lot since its launch six years ago, said Priscilla Beal, global head of digital health engagement at Bayer. The program, which began as a simple grant program for startups, now works closely with them across life stages to help develop and bring their products to market.

“Through the years, we’ve matured from investing and giving these grants to very early stage startups to [seeing] how we can mentor them,” Beal said. “[We’re collaborating] from pitch-coaching to theoretical use cases and maturing products along the spectrum. Startups are becoming more mature faster, and we need to mature with them.”

Beal, a leader in the G4A program, shared lessons learned as Bayer has partnered with startups at MM&M’s Transforming Healthcare conference on Wednesday.

From learning to work closely with startups even before they join the program to sharing data with companies, Bayer and other pharma players are starting to get the hang of partnering. Identifying a need is often the first step of teaming up with startups, Beal said. The need is typically a gap that patients experience that the new technology, drug or product can fill.

Once that’s identified, G4A helps with issues from money to experts to coaching, but forming a close relationship is key to a successful partnership.

“It’s not a one-off conversation; it has to be an ongoing, fluid collaboration,” Beal said. “With the startups that are out there, we need to identify what it is that they need: speed, access to experts, use cases, money. To set up for success, we have to have these conversations on an ongoing basis.”

While pharma has traditionally been slow-moving and closed off to partners, opening up to both startups and even competitors to develop products and share data is speeding up innovation.

Beal said the goal of every partnership is to serve the patient and improve health.

“If we remain proprietary and possessive of the information we have, of data we have, of medical studies, of relationships we have, we’re not going to succeed,” Beal said. “We need not only to empower ourselves to be successful in relationships and conversations we have; we need to empower the patient with the data and the product to start to change the experience of health for everyone.”