No cooling off for pharma digital transformation in 2021

COVID-19 has already proved to be a digital accelerant for the pharmaceutical industry, sparking new ideas into life and lighting a fire underneath existing plans that had, in retrospect, yet to burn brightly.

After a year in which the need for digital transformation in pharma reached white heat levels, the sector mustn’t cool off in 2021 and revert to business-as-usual. A return to normal is the longed for goal for many of us, but pharma companies must decide what their future normal should look like.

“The healthcare industry is at an inflection point,” agrees Novartis’ Elizabeth Theophille.

After four years as the Swiss pharma company’s chief technology and digital officer, November 2020 saw her tackle these new challenges head-on, becoming Novartis’ chief technology transformation officer.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 sparked a mass movement to digital systems almost overnight, and in 2021 we’re going to see this trend solidify with tech-led healthcare becoming core to how we operate as an industry.

“From drug discovery and development through to manufacturing and patient treatment, technology will create new opportunities at every stage of the healthcare process.”

Theophille, who also serves as Novartis’ chief information officer (CIO), is clear that the digital potential of 2021 for pharma can’t be done by individuals on their own.

“It will need true cross-industry collaboration if it’s going to succeed. This means up-skilling current employees and bringing in new tech talent. And the tech sector is ready for the challenge.”

“There should be no cooling off from digital transformation in 2021, and all the signs are that key stakeholders are firmly focused on the possibilities that health tech can offer.”

Pharma’s digital moment

Research by Novartis last year found 86% of technology professionals think that the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries’ digital moment has arrived.

The company’s online survey quizzed 2,500 tech professionals across the US, UK, Germany, China and India between 23 May and 2 June. Some 85% said the application of data science had been a crucial factor in the sector’s response to COVID-19 and 89% said the discipline would be important to the development and delivery of healthcare solutions and services.

In Novartis’ A Powerful Pairing report on the survey, chief digital officer Bertrand Bodson wrote: “[The pandemic] has shown us that we must grasp the clear opportunities that the powerful pairing of data science and technology provides to not only reshape our sector, but also to create better experiences for patients and physicians.

“At a time when it still takes 12.5 years and $2.5 billion to bring a drug to market, it has never felt so critical that we embrace this powerful pairing. We must dare to approach complex biology as a computational challenge, upend traditional approaches to customer engagement and revolutionize the way we work to reimagine medicine.”

Novartis’ strategy, Bodson noted, is underpinned by a belief that “powerful opportunities exist when you combine pure science with data science and digital technology”.

Business transformation through digital innovation

That desire to keep pushing ahead with the opportunities that digital can provide is shared by many in the industry.

Bayer, for one, has signalled its intention to transform its pharma business by targeting breakthrough innovation, with digital health innovation in particular set become a key pillar of its pharmaceutical business within its “integrated care” offering.

“In the next ten years, we expect digital health offerings to significantly contribute to our revenues,” explained Jeanne Kehren, Bayer’s senior VP of digital and commercial innovation and a member of its Pharmaceuticals Executive Committee, at the start of 2021.

Meanwhile, there’s no end of individual pharma deals to advance their digital ambitions. One that recently caught my eye was Boehringer Ingelheim’s tie-up last month with Google to bring quantum computing to its drug discovery efforts for a three-year partnership centred around the newly-established Quantum Lab of Boehringer Ingelheim.

Michael Schmelmer is the member of Boehringer’s Board of Managing Directors with responsibility for its Finance and Corporate Functions.

He said: “Quantum computing has the potential to significantly accelerate and enhance R&D processes in our industry. Quantum computing is still very much an emerging technology. However, we are convinced that this technology could help us to provide even more humans and animals with innovative and groundbreaking medicines in the future.”

The collaboration with Google is part of what the company says is a “comprehensive digital transformation strategy” that aims to accelerate its pipeline and bring more medical breakthroughs to patients. As part of this Boehringer is significantly increasing its investment in a broad range of digital technologies, including in AI, machine learning, data science and digital therapeutics.

There should be no cooling off from digital transformation in 2021, and all the signs are that key stakeholders are firmly focused on the possibilities that health tech can offer.

Contributing to Novartis’ A Powerful Pairing report, the FDA’s principal deputy commissioner – and acting CIO – Amy Abernethy spoke of the huge opportunities for innovation across the healthcare value chain.

“Not only do you need the data, the talent, and the ability to build the algorithms, you also need to be able to accelerate clinical development – so bringing solutions to bear to clinical trials, to approval and post-marketing, and being able to essentially make that part of the spectrum go faster too.

“I believe that the merging of healthcare and technology is a ‘full-stack’ opportunity.”

About the Author

Dominic-TyerDominic Tyer is a journalist and editor specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. He is currently pharmaphorum’s interim managing editor and is also creative and editorial director at the company’s specialist healthcare content consultancy pharmaphorum connect.

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