Digital success for pharma services in a uncertain world

Laura Morrill from ECI Partners looks at why data and technology are the keys to success in pharma services post-COVID.

The pharmaceuticals industry has, for some time, been behind the curve when it comes to the adoption of technology. High barriers to entering the sector and high levels of regulation are just two factors that have meant that there has often been an “innovation lag” when it comes to implementing new technologies and embracing technological and digital change in the pharma industry.

However, the COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on the sector’s need to use technology and data more effectively, not just to help firms themselves grow, but also to ensure that operations across the industry are more streamlined, and fit for today’s digital ways of working.

Embracing digitalisation

The pharmaceutical sector has always been conservative in its approach and operates to long time frames, which when coupled with a complex regulatory environment, legacy systems and the challenge of finding talent and resources, means that technological innovation has often been stifled.

Additionally, it is hard for companies to determine which initiatives they should scale up and which will add most value in the long-term, as often there is a long time before return on investment is generated.

Most pharmaceutical companies have started to build digital capabilities, and the government-imposed restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced organisations to do things virtually, and adopt more remote working processes. But to increase the pace of long-term digital change, we need to see more direction and drive from leadership teams and the resources and investment to help push it forward.

Technology is not just about working remotely, it is about transforming how the sector operates and, ultimately, enabling companies to be more successful. This can be seen in how technology is being used to increase patient engagement, speed to market and deliver better business and patient outcomes, and that’s just the start.

“Smart use of data can help companies focus on the events they can plan for, but also predict and respond to those they cannot”

Enhancing the clinical trials process

The need to increase speed and efficiency of clinical trials is not a new trend, but the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a number of bottlenecks and outdated ways of working. Whilst news of a vaccine is eagerly awaited, those in the industry know that the need for pace and the realities of the speed to market don’t always work in tandem.

Increased connectivity and automation in trial management processes will enable advanced trial design and monitoring approaches, increasing efficiencies and overall speed to market. This will not only help in the race to finding a vaccine, but in all future medical research.

The key to a successful clinical trial is ensuring that the right patients participate and are retained throughout the process. Using targeted online recruitment and remote-monitoring technology will increasingly allow clinical trials to take place in the ‘real world’ and without the need for patients to visit physical test sites. Adopting this approach will mean that more patients will want to participate and be retained throughout the trial period.

Having had to establish and adopt more of a decentralised and remote trial approach, the industry has taken a leap forward in innovation that will have a long lasting and positive impact on how the sector operates. Platforms and services that can help decentralise trials and offer virtual processes and monitoring should make signing up and staying on trials more attractive than before, and will help pharma companies get to market quicker.

The need for data in an uncertain world

The pharma industry requires decision making support from the start through to the end of the trial lifecycle. This means firms are continuously required to make decisions based on current conditions and an uncertain future, which is particularly tricky in the ongoing turbulent environment.

Pharma firms are awash with data, but the complexities of that data are also increasing. As such, it’s vital that businesses invest in the tools to understand it better and provide insight that has a practical impact on their bottom line. By investing in AI and machine learning technologies to analyse and detect insightful patterns in the data, firms will be able to get access to information that will help them make better, well informed decisions. Smart use of data can help companies focus on the events they can plan for, but also predict and respond to those they cannot.

Success in a post COVID-era

Pharmaceutical companies and biotechs are increasingly demanding a high level of technology adoption from their service providers. Therefore, to be successful in a post-COVID environment, technology needs to be a core part of a businesses’ offering.

If, as a service provider, you can help solve or accelerate the innovation lag issues facing pharmaceutical companies, you will be well placed to succeed. This is particularly true if you can help them accelerate their own digital adoption plans to harness data better or effectively use technology to gain a competitive advantage. The winners in the industry will be those that are differentiated through digital, data and technology capabilities.

A technology-centred proposition also means firms can scale more effectively in future, without needing to significantly grow headcount. In an industry where there have been historic talent challenges, this is increasingly important.

Embedding technology into a product or service increases business resilience through having recurring revenues, offering greater protection during periods of economic instability, and enhancing the business model. As competition continues to increase in the pharmaceutical industry, technology is often now the key differentiator for pharma services businesses as they look to diversify from their more traditional consulting service models.

The future of pharma

There are a number of challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry as it looks to accelerate its digital adoption plans. For pharma services firms, helping to solve these issues will be hugely important as the need to deliver operational improvements for pharma clients whose appetite for data, digital and technology in order to gain a competitive advantage is higher than ever. Those that don’t have the tech to help facilitate remote management, over multiple continents, at speed, will likely fall behind as the industry doubles down on digital in the post-COVID world.

About the author

Laura Morrill is an investment manager at ECI Partners, a growth-focused mid-market private equity firm.