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Watch out pharma

Today in one of my mentoring sessions we were looking at the use of Artificial Intelligence in the pharma industry.  This in itself is a fascinating area to look at but equally fascinating was the discussion the topic generated – namely the changing dynamics of the healthcare industry and the pharmaceutical industry’s continued snail pace of change.

As we looked at some of the new players entering the market, such as AI startups like BenevolentAi or the big players like Google and Apple, we discussed how pharma is starting to miss increasingly large value opportunities in healthcare, which tech companies are seizing.  Whilst currently much of the pharma industry still remains clearly in the domain of the pharma companies that may change in the future as the industry fails to adapt to changes being driven by technology.

Looking at AI & clinical trials for example – currently clinical trials are very clearly the domain for pharma because of the huge financial investments required but also because of the need for highly skilled and experienced people to work in this area.  However as AI makes inroads, for example in molecule identification, what’s not to say that non-pharma companies might look at this area and bring in their technology expertise and just hire / poach the expertise they need to run the trials … or indeed just outsource to the CRO?

This article also gives the nice example that technology will increasingly play an important role in treatment and if tech companies find that the pharma industry is the bottle neck to their products what’s to prevent them just buying their own way in to the industry?  Once this happens pharma could potentially face major issues as all of sudden their direct competition no longer comes from another slow, cumbersome pharma company but rather an agile, dynamic and fast moving tech company.

And this leads on to another factor that is also hindering the industry namely how cumbersome and slow the internal systems and structures are.  Even when a pharma decides to partner with a start up (which is happening but IMHO not as much as it should be) often the clash between the two cultures proves a major obstacle to the success of the partnership.  While  a startup will expect to move quickly – and may need to move quickly due to limited funds – they then find themselves with a partner who may expect things to take years (by which time the startup has run out of funds / has lost key people / etc.).

Many people in pharma argue that due to regulations this is a totally different market and it is the regulatory environment that hampers speed I would push back on this.  Time and time again regulatory constraints is bandied around as an excuse when it should not be.  The length of time it takes for a pharma company to draft and sign off a contract or agreement with a startup for example has very little to do with the regulatory environment but rather with the internal systems and staff.

Another cultural aspect that differs between pharma and tech companies – and again which is only partially linked to the regulatory environment – is the right to fail.  Traditionally pharma, like many other industries, will only launch or release something when it is perfect, which contrasts with the tech industry which focuses more on agility and adaption.  Many tech companies will launch something as a beta version – so not final – but will then adapt it based on feedback and data.  Whilst this approach may not be appropriate for the actual pharma products there are many other parts of the industry that would benefit from this approach.

So will we be losing our jobs to the likes of Google and Apple?  Probably not in the near future but if pharma companies continue to only adapt at a snails pace it will become less of a philosophical debate and will move closer to reality.  And what is certain is that as pharma tries to deal with increasing costs and prices pressures if they do not start to look at the full value picture of the healthcare industry they will lose out on potential new revenue and value sources – and there are plenty of non-pharma companies lining up to grab this value.

 

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