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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Schmidt

Finding the Best CRO for your Clinical Program

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

How do clinical sponsors select their CROs? SterlingBio's Catherine Schmidt, alongside clinical trial professional Joaquin Sosa discuss how sponsors need to approach CRO selection to establish and maintain a successful partnership.

Catherine Schmidt, Nov 28, 2022 - Costs for drug development have never been higher. A critical component of the drug development roadmap is human clinical trials. Many sponsors of new biopharma device products are typically small, lean running companies. These companies rely on clinical research organizations (CROs) to help scale up the human capital that is required to manage these large complex projects. Major pharma companies also partner with CROs to fill resource gaps.

There is intensive pressure on sponsors to make sure the selected CRO can deliver clinical trials that are completed with a high level of quality and performance.

How can sponsor companies effectively evaluate and select these crucial business partners?

Sponsors can pay for expensive webinars that opine on CRO selection, offer “evaluation checklists” or other “evaluation metrics." This peaked my curiousity on how clinical trial professionals are approaching this selection process., so I turned to a industry expert.

Joaquin Sosa, RN, MBA is the Director of Clinical Systems and Trial Management for Cidara Therapeutics. Joaquin is especially well versed on selecting and working with CROs from his experience at several of the largest CROs in the USA.

Based on our conversation, these are some of the most valuable concepts discussed:

1. Transparency is a Must-Have

A common theme in evaluating and selecting a CRO is transparency. Joaquin and I agree that the best indication that the CRO may be a reliable partner starts at the beginning. CROs that are candid and transparent when responding to Requests for Proposal (RFP) set a great table for a successful partnership.

When moving to the bid defense stage of CRO evaluation, sponsors shoyld ask the CRO to provide unitized costs e.g. there will be 10 site selection visits (SSV) and the unit cost of each SSV is $XXX. Joaquin added, “This helps sponsors compare apples to apples when evaluating CROs for a new project.”

To effectively manage clinical trials, electronic clinical trial data systems are now required over traditional paper processes. If the sponsor cannot or chooses not to select and pay for the data systems directly, they must ensure the CRO’s systems are validated and compliant.

Ask for the validation documentation! Most importantly, do not allow the CRO to put add on charges to software systems. Ask for the system-provider invoice and do not pay any “admin” or “overhead fee”. Unauthorized reselling of software is not legal and can get sponsors as well as CROs in unwanted trouble.

2. Minimize the Opportunity for Surprises

A seasoned clinical research professional makes certain assumptions about the scope of the work and tasks involved with proper monitoring of clinical trials. Sponsors may assume a unit of site monitoring by a CRO includes laboratory checking, deviation tracking, and regulatory document review, but unless it is in writing on the CRO bid, it may not happen.

Additionally, you could be facing extra “out of scope” charges. “Large change orders are extremely painful and some require Board Approval, which delays progress” explained Joaquin.

As busy as clinical trial managers are, it is extremely important to spend the time to hammer out all expectations up front and get costs brokendown before they sign a contract. Some changes in scope are inevitable with long complex clinical trials, but there should not be surprises around the basic tasks.

3. Communicate, Collaborate & Cooperate

When a CRO and sponsor sign a Transfer of Regulatory Obligations (TORO), they become players on the same team. A successful trial depends on clear and constant communication between the team. The CRO serves as the eyes and ears of the clinical trial, but the sponsor holds overall responsibility.

“A major component in the CRO partnership is helping the sponsor to identify any gaps. CROs must have processes and documentation to make our sponsor oversight responsibilities easier to manage,” said Joaquin.

Much of modern clinical trial information is housed in cloud-based data systems. If sponsors do not have direct access to clinical trial information systems (eTMF, CTMS, etc), the CRO must be able to provide easily interpretable reports, from validated systems, with audit trails that show where the clinical study data is coming from and how it is reconciled.

Another important factor in a successful partnership with a CRO includes progress reporting. Joaquin recommends well-established expectations. He added, “A CRO should provide meaningful key performance indicators (KPIs) to ensure the sponsor that things are going correctly.”

KPIs, if well designed, can ensure proactive analysis of data and performance to head off problems. The CRO must be ready to report those issues and have remediation plans in place.

Joaquin added a real-world example when things did not go to plan. He’s been on both ends of the “CRO-Switch”, where a sponsor fires a CRO and adds a new "rescue" CRO. Many of the tasks and responsibilities transitioned smoothy, but he cautioned about data migration.

“Migrating data from one EDC or eTMF to a new vendor platform is serious business and can be a quality nightmare," he adds.

Systems pharmacovigilance is a new necessary. The FDA is asking a lot of questions about eClinical system compliance, implementation timing, validation, and audit trails. Documentation needs to be at the ready.

This suggests that sponsors should be in control of their clinical systems and data; they should not rely on the CRO to select and implement systems unilaterally.


A successful clinical trial depends on a solid partnership with a CRO. Some factors to consider when making this important selection decision include:

  1. Transparency in costs and deliverables

  2. Details of tasks and expectations are critical to minimize unexpected obstacles

  3. CROs that will communicate and cooperate and have well developed systems for gap analysis and key performance indicators

  4. Ensure that all electronic systems are validated, compliant and contain audit trails

Look for transparency, minimize the possibility for surprises, and make sure the CRO will deliver!

When asked what makes a CRO a “Fabulous CRO”, Joaquin quipped,

“Do what you say you are going to do and hit your marks!”

SterlingBio would like to thank Joaquin Sosa for his valuable input for sponsors on the CRO selection process.

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