Tunnah’s musings: Skydiving pharma and the art of fall better

Paul Tunnah


Slightly still in awe of the recent record skydive from the stratosphere by Felix Baumgartner, Paul Tunnah wonders whether pharma has something to learn from such risk takers who are willing to push the boundaries.

Did you watch Felix Baumgartner jump out of that tiny capsule in the stratosphere at 128,000 feet as the first step on his way to breaking the sound barrier and numerous other records for skydiving? It really was amazing to watch it live.

But why bother? What did it achieve? Was it really worth all the time, all the money and, more importantly, all the risk?

To those involved in this successful jump (and to many others around the world watching), the answers to those questions were an emphatic yes. It is almost impossible to justify that ‘yes’ in any logical way – certainly record attempts like this will not advance medicine or help solve the global economic crisis and, in fact, arguments could be made that the money invested in this could have been better put towards these very goals.


“…Felix only needed one reason to go after that record – because no-one else had.”


Indeed, Felix himself must have been presented with numerous arguments around how the risks were too great:

• What if the air supply failed?

• What if the balloon did not work as planned?

• What if the weather became too dangerous?

• What if his body could not withstand the forces and he lost consciousness?

• What if the parachute buckled under the speed?

But Felix only needed one reason to go after that record – because no-one else had.

It is this very spirit that inspires people to go faster, higher or longer than is pivotal to human advancement in many fields, as by pushing such boundaries and not accepting the risks as an opt-out, it drives others to do the same. A collective desire to overachieve is stimulated and a virtuous circle of new innovators is produced, who are willing to cast off those negative thoughts in the pursuit of what others have never done.

It is also this very spirit that is needed right now in our own pharma industry.

We work within an environment that has been bound by a certain set of operating rules for many years, is tightly regulated and, as a result, is scrutinised at every turn for potential risk. This is, of course, vitally important to protect patients in an industry whose products can quite literally kill or cure. Getting it wrong in pharma carries a very high price, so the perceived risk of trying something different is very high. If you focus on the path of least risk then the net result is always to do as little as possible. As a result, doing nothing, or at least nothing new, is the default legal position.


“If you focus on the path of least risk then the net result is always to do as little as possible.”


But if you do what you have always done you will get what you have always got.

For a pharma industry that needs to adapt and change, healthcare systems that are under increasing cost pressures and aging patient populations that need new life saving treatments getting what they have always got no longer works. The game of standing back and waiting for others to enforce change simply does not work anymore.

There are very few working in the pharma industry (myself included) who would feel at all comfortable jumping into freefall from 24 miles up in the sky. However, we all have the capability to take more managed risks within our roles that could make a difference, things as simple as:

• Pursuing more open engagement with patients for feedback.

• Embracing new digital and social media approaches for connecting with people.

• Allowing senior execs to become more visible and vocal.

• Taking a more transparent approach to data sharing and open innovation.

• Investing in more holistic healthcare technologies around diagnosis and prevention.

• Throwing away the old detail aid and having more meaningful discussions with doctors around the pros and cons of different treatments.

So next time you are planning your next launch, licensing strategy, research project, recruitment drive or PR campaign, just ask yourself – am I being held back by the perceived risks or am I willing to embrace the spirit of doing what others have never done?


“But if you do what you have always done you will get what you have always got.”


And if you try something new and it does not work as planned, see it as a temporary stumble rather than a big fall. After all, the biggest fall ever now belongs to Felix Baumgartner and he seems to have come out of it alright.

Until next month, stay well.




About the author:

Paul Tunnah is Founder and Managing Director of www.pharmaphorum.com, the primary facilitator of thought leadership and innovation for the pharmaceutical industry featuring news, articles, events / company listings and online discussion. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

Does pharma need a bit more Felix Baumgartner?