Tunnah’s musings: When Top Gear met pharma

As he heads off to Barcelona to hear the latest updates on how the pharma industry is adapting its customer engagement, Paul Tunnah muses on some of the peculiar nuances of drug development and commercialisation compared to the car industry.

I’ll admit it – I’m feeling pretty miserable about the fact that motoring programme Top Gear has been taken off our screens here in the UK. Just to explain, for those who don’t know, it’s a TV show that mixes cars with laddish humour, but due to its frontman, Jeremy Clarkson, allegedly punching a producer, it’s been pulled until further notice.

Many people can’t stand it – or Jeremy Clarkson – but for me it’s just a bit of mindless Sunday evening entertainment that lets me turn my brain off before another busy week; some laugh-out-loud silliness that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“Let’s imagine what the car industry would look like if it went about its business like a pharma company”


In mourning its absence I started thinking about how different the worlds of cars and pharmaceuticals really are. So let’s imagine what the car industry would look like if it went about its business like a pharma company.

The starting point for the car manufacturer would be to identify a particular demographic of buyer and assess what the unmet needs might be for them. Let’s say we take a look at the middle-aged driver with a partner and two children. A niche might be identified for better fuel-efficiency, more in-car entertainment, or even just more safety features. So far it sounds like the car industry we know.

But Pharma Motors Inc. (a fictional company – I checked!) would now invest enormous resources in screening thousands of tiny bits of engineering to see if, in laboratory-controlled conditions, they could make a difference to the above unmet needs. Any that showed promise would be patented – there and then – to prevent anyone else doing anything with them.

These lucky few automotive enhancements would then be implemented into generic test cars, driven by trained mice, to see if they caused any accidents as an unwanted side effect of their technological genius. Assuming all proved OK here, volunteer real drivers would be sought that met the exact demographic of the target buyer (and who were not driving any other vehicles at any time so as not to be exposed to other random engineering enhancements). Sequentially, greater and greater numbers of test subjects would be involved in large driving experiments (but on controlled test tracks), where they were asked to compare the impact of the new advancements on fuel-efficiency, in-car entertainment and safety versus a comparator vehicle seen as being gold standard for those features.


“So much money has been spent on getting to this point that we have to charge the garages £1 million for each new car”


Finally, an independent regulator of the motoring industry would review these tests and, after much deliberation, agree that Pharma Motors could start selling and marketing its new car, with the tested enhancements. But only to approved and registered car salespeople, who themselves could then authorise their customers – the drivers – to buy it.

But there’s a problem at this stage, as so much money has been spent on getting to this point, and all the failed engineering that never made it this far, that we have to charge the garages £1 million for each new car. This worries them because, while it is better than what is currently available, by a little bit, it’s also 30 times the price, so they don’t think they’re going to be able to sell any without losing money and going bankrupt.

In truth, there is a small segment of drivers who would pay the £1 million price tag because they have a unique genetic make-up that means they are billionaires. But they’re really hard to identify (and no one has any good way of finding them), plus the whole development and marketing effort has so far been focused on the broader, potentially more lucrative, market so the car salespeople don’t see the opportunity here.

And there’s another problem. The whole process from start to finish has taken over 10 years, and the key unmet needs identified at the start have now become redundant. Electric cars have come in, so fuel-efficiency doesn’t matter anymore and people can just plug their iPhone into the car for all their entertainment needs, plus roads are now much safer. So actually, Pharma Motors’ new car isn’t really the step forward they wanted it to be.


“Things don’t look good for poor old Pharma Motors”


Finally, even for those who do splash out and buy the new car, there is a problem. On the oval test track used for the development all the corners go round to the right, but in the real world they go both ways and one of the bits of new engineering prevents the steering wheel turning left. This causes some side effects that were not predicted and drivers stop using the new car, saying the new technology just doesn’t work – and they want their money back.

Things don’t look good for poor old Pharma Motors.

I know, I know – the analogy is pretty flaky at points, but it does illustrate what a peculiarly difficult world it is that the pharmaceutical industry operates in. It also shows how broken the current business process is in places and highlights the need to find new, more efficient ways to do things.

And if, as an industry, we can achieve this change it might be the car industry that’s looking to us for inspiration when no-one needs cars any more in 50 years’ time.

Until next month, happy motoring and stay well.

Paul Tunnah will be live blogging from eyeforpharma Barcelona 24-26 March 2015, so follow the coverage to see how the pharmaceutical industry is evolving its processes and join the conversation on Twitter: #E4PBARCA

About the author:

Paul Tunnah is CEO & Founder of pharmaphorum media, which facilitates productive engagement for pharma, bringing healthcare together to drive medical innovation. It combines industry-leading content and social media engagement services with the globally recognised news, information and insight portal pharmaphorum.com, working with pharmaceutical companies, service providers and broader healthcare organisations to help communicate their thought leadership and connect them with relevant stakeholders.

For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

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