A year and a half ago, Jean-Jacques Garaud, who heads pharmaceuticals research and early-stage drug development at Roche Holding in Basel, Switzerland, bumped into an old friend at a dinner party near the Place des Vosges in Paris — kidney specialist Gérard Friedlander, who’d been a fellow intern at Claude Bernard Hospital in the French capital back in the late 1970s. At the time of the dinner, Friedlander was doing innovative research at the Paris-based Necker School of Medicine into the way calcium and phosphate are transported by the urinary system, and Roche was seeking outside experts to work with its in-house scientists.

“I said we should talk together,” recalls Garaud, who specializes in internal medicine and infectious disease. And voilá! Friedlander — though still at Necker — is now collaborating with Roche in studying the biology of kidney disease.

“I don’t want to give the impression that the only way we are managing our science is by having dinner with friends,” Garaud is quick to point out. Still, Roche researchers and executives are trawling the web, professional meetings, university journals and their own Rolodexes in search of cutting-edge academic experts who can bolster the $52 billion manufacturer’s labs and help it develop drugs for cancer, neurologic diseases, inflammatory disease and other ailments. For instance, another bit of networking by Garaud — based on a decadelong professional friendship with Jean-Claude Tardif, director of the Montreal Heart Institute’s research center — led to a program for joint research into coronary disease at the Canadian institute about three years ago. That undertaking has since burgeoned into several projects, one of which is in late-stage clinical trials. And Roche is working with scientists at Baylor Institute for Immunology Research in Dallas on autoimmune diseases and immune response to chronic viral infections.

Garaud is right, of course, that all this outreach isn’t just a matter of dinner parties. Nor are Roche and other big drug companies merely collecting some nice extra tidbits of research to fill in temporarily for their own underperforming labs. These examples are the first signs of a major shake-up of what was once a powerful industry of vertically integrated giants.

“It’s not a productivity crisis for the industry,” says Kenneth Kaitin, director of Tufts University’s Center for the Study of Drug Development. “It’s a business-model crisis.”