An Examination of Opportunistic Action within Research Alliances: Evidence from the Biotechnology Industry



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Like a photographer trying to take a perfect picture, an entrepreneur trying to increase the odds of survival must learn very quickly that focus is everything. And what demands an entrepreneur’s immediate focus is the development of new products. Entrepreneurial ventures depend on the rapid creation of new products to gain access to early cash flows, create legitimacy, grab early market share, and increase their odds of survival (Schoonhoven, Eisenhardt, and Lymman 1990). However, the increasing costs and complexity of new product development are making it difficult for entrepreneurial ventures to contain the assets needed for successfulR&Dwithin their boundaries, forcing them to reach beyond their borders to access resources. Barley et al. (1992) document the use of more than 900 contractual research agreements within the biotechnology industry alone. Recent research has also found a positive relationship between the use of alliances in the R&D process and the rate of new product development (Deeds and Hill 1996; Shan, Walker, and Kogut 1994).

This particular study focuses on the use of relational contracts in the R&D process and extends the prior work on relational contracts to create an explanatory model of the deterrents to opportunism within a relational contract. The article begins with a discussion of the traditional modes of deterring opportunism and of modes of deterring opportunism based on the development of a strong cross-boundary relationship. From this discussion, hypotheses are derived that relate certain characteristics of the alliance (frequency of communication, stregnth of contractual deterrents, hostage investments, age of the relationship, etc.) to the level of opportunism within the relationship. These hypotheses are then tested on a sample of 109 research alliances in the biotechnology industry.

We found significant evidence that a strong relationship between the partners serves as a much more effective deterrent to opportunistic action than the creation of hostage investments or contingent claims contracts. In particular, the results for frequency of communication and the background of the firm highlight the importance of the top management team’s understanding and involvement in the management of research alliances. The strong results for background congruence indicates the importance of shared expectations and understandings between the partners.

The strong empirical results for the hypothesized U-shaped relationship between age and opportunism provide support for the existence of both a honeymoon period in the relationship and a liability of adolescence among research alliances. The data also suggest that the honeymoon period for an alliance will last about 4.6 years. We also find that the honeymoon period for alliances that are of little importance to the future of the firm is only 4.1 years, and in our sample of alliances that were important to the future of the firm, the honeymoon period extended from 4.6 years to 6.1 years.

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Journal of Business Venturing

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Journal of Business Venturing, vol. 14, issue 2, pp. 141-163.