Bridging the pharma-startup gap with PharmStars, a new accelerator programme

digital innovation

From remote monitoring tech to enable clinical trials, to AI for drug discovery, to digital therapeutics and drugs with companion apps, digital innovation has the potential to touch every corner of the pharmaceutical sector. The startups know it. Pharma knows it. Yet, somehow, it’s not always easy to make the connection.

The world of pharma is heavily regulated, risk averse, and extremely complex. From the outside, one might even call it inscrutable.

PharmStars, a new accelerator that’s recently graduated its first class and is currently recruiting a second, is looking to help bridge that gap in understanding.

“There's something that keeps these two groups from getting together,” said Naomi Fried, PharmStars founder and CEO. “And I think the gap is comprised of really fundamentally different ways of doing business, but really also different cultures, different languages, a different sense of timing that comes out in spades, and even different comfort with risk and risk tolerance.”

Fried has a background in digital health and innovation consulting and previously held positions at Boston Children’s Hospital, Kaiser Permanente, and Biogen. She and her team choose 12 startups a year all focused on a single category of challenges — the inaugural class was focused on clinical trial innovation, for example. Those startups go through a 10-week programme focused on education and mentoring. PharmStars also partners with a handful of pharmaceutical companies to facilitate 1-on-1 meetings and also offer a bit of educational programming in the other direction, teaching pharma more about the startup world. These members include AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Boehringer Ingelheim, Takeda, and Novo Nordisk.

“The state of pharma innovation has never been better for developing medicines, but creating digital products is very different,” said Jim Parshall, director of connected health and devices external innovation at Eli Lilly, one of PharmStars’ members. “What the startups reinforced to me is innovating in digital health may be best executed with partnerships, as startups and pharma both play important roles when it comes to developing solutions for patients. Startups can bring enhanced agility, applications of new digital technology, and a healthy but different perspective on risk, while pharma provides clinical rigour, established quality systems, and a very deep, quantitative understanding of medicines.”

Pharma U

At the core of the programme is the educational experience, which is run by Laura Gunn, PharmStars’ managing director and another Biogen alumna.

“We meet twice a week for two hours each time,” Gunn said. “Throughout the entire 10 weeks and throughout the curriculum, we're doing workshops and having panels with our members and fireside chats. So it's a really well-rounded opportunity for the startups to not only hear our curriculum about kind of how pharma works in general, but they get to hear from the members about how their pharma companies work specifically, because we know all pharma companies are different.”

The curriculum is divided into five modules. The first covers the pharma-startup gap and the reason for the programme. The second deals with how pharma companies are organised and the different functions within pharma. Third, companies learn about pharma business models and how companies make money in the industry. The fourth is concerned with the regulations that govern pharma. Finally, startups tackle “the art of the deal” a module all about creating working relationships with pharma.

“The goal of the curriculum is really to drill it down into why is this relevant for a startup,” Gunn says. “So it's not just knowledge for knowledge's sake, but it's really teasing out those relevant pieces that if you're a startup wanting to work with Pharma, what do you need to know? How do you speak their language? And what can you expect once you get in the door from those kind of conversations?”

While there’s a lot of material to cover, there’s also an effort to keep it light to keep the startup founders engaged, Fried said.

“It's not just a dry curriculum that [Gunn] put together,” she said. “We have a lot of fun. We give the startups a list of the 80 plus acronyms that they'll probably be exposed to in conversation with pharma, and then we play Bingo with them over the course of the class.”

The programme culminates in a showcase event where the startups make presentations to the pharma members, then take one-on-one meetings with interested members.

“While we have a long history in successfully developing medicines, collaborating and partnering with startups is very important to our digital health efforts and essential to bringing innovative solutions to our patients, Parshall at Lilly said. “Participating in accelerators provides companies like Lilly introductions to high-quality, prescreened startups in targeted areas of interest or need.”

The first class (and what’s coming up)

The clinical trial cohort included companies from around the world, tackling different aspects of the problem. Here’s the full list of participants.

  • Droice Labs, a New York-based startup focused on harmonising patient-generated data to support real-world evidence efforts
  • EVOCAL Health, a Hamburg-based startup developing a vocal biomarker for patient monitoring and disease prediction
  • Liyfe, a New York-based startup working on an AI-based ‘digital nurse’ for oncology and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis patients
  • Longenesis, a Latvian startup looking to make participant identification and engagement in clinical trials more efficient through technology
  • Neucruit, a London-based startup that uses social media and intelligent algorithms to help improve clinical trial recruitment and diversity
  • Nori Health, an Amsterdam-based startup offering a digital therapy app for IBD patients that also collects RWE data
  • NQ Medical, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup that analyses personal device interaction as a biomarker for early detection of cognition and motor disorders
  • Prism Analytic Technologies, another Cambridge, Massachusetts company focused on homogenising messy data siloes
  • Seascape Clinical, a Redwood, California-based startup creating a software platform for clinical operations oversight
  • SmartTab, a Denver, Colorado-based startup that’s created novel connected drug delivery mechanisms
  • Tag.Bio, a San Francisco startup helping pharma companies optimise data analysis
  • The Clinician, an Auckland, New Zealand-based startup providing software to enable decentralised clinical trials

Next up, the company is accepting applications for a cohort focused on a specific therapeutic area: neurological diseases.

“Neurological diseases are an extraordinarily high unmet need,” Gunn said. “People think about things like Alzheimer's and MS and Parkinson's. But we're also thinking we'll see solutions from neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and then less common neurological diseases like ALS, myasthenia, and then things like stroke, epilepsy, and neuropathic pain… We’re also anticipating a spectrum from the perspective of the kinds of capabilities that we're going to see. … If you think about the unmet needs in neurological diseases, it could be digital therapeutics, it could be patient reported outcomes, it could be digital diagnostics and biomarkers. It could also be things like self care management and caregiver solutions, which we also know are an incredible burden in this space. So while it seems narrow, it's actually very broad and our members’ needs all fit within there.”

Learnings so far

One thing Fried and Gunn have learned after running one full programme is that the interest in a programme like this is extremely high. For the first class, they received 73 applications from 18 countries for 10 available slots. They ended up accepting 12 companies because of the quantity and quality of the applications.

Another insight from the programme so far has been that even startups whose leadership have experience in pharma still find themselves in need of a broader education.

“What happens is, yes, they were working in a job, whether it's clinical operations or research or whatever, and they learned their very small sphere,” Fried said. “But when you're a start up trying to engage pharma as a client, you need a much broader understanding of the organisation. You need to understand how drugs are developed. You need to understand the role of medical affairs, commercial. You need to understand pricing and why that's important. And there are just so many aspects that really are important to start and potentially touch and impact their deal with pharma.”

PharmStars has also found a variety of startups interested in the programme — some who had already identified pharma as their primary partner or customer, but also many that were working with other healthcare stakeholders looking to pivot or expand into working with pharma.

There’s also great interest in the programme from the pharma partners, who actually support the programme. PharmStars does not take an equity stake like many other accelerators. Pharmas appreciate the curated startup slate and educational offerings, Fried said, but they also enjoy the opportunity to connect with each other.

“I met some amazing people who are my peers at the other pharma companies, and I really appreciated interacting with them on panels, during education sessions, and at the showcase event,” Parshall said. “Yes, the pharma members are competitors but that doesn’t rule out collaboration when the end goal for all of us is to help people live better lives.”