How to Take the Lead in Reinventing the Life Sciences Industry
When I think about the tectonic plate shift happening in technology today, it brings to mind the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” I love that quote because it speaks to who we are as humans: When we see high degrees of uncertainty, we tend to be intimidated and back away. But the alternative is to be invigorated and energized, because the opportunities these dynamic changes will bring are phenomenal.
To show you what I mean, let me take you back to 1996. I was in Orlando, Florida for the Lotusphere trade show. There was intense excitement in the huge arena as everyone waited for the keynote to begin. Suddenly, in swept Spiderman, flying down from the ceiling. He landed on the stage, pulled off his mask – revealing John Landry, the chief technology officer at Lotus. He stepped to the microphone and dramatically pronounced: “The web will change everything.”
For me, that session was a trigger event: it was then that I realized there was something big going on. My point is that every so often, the computing model changes. In 1996, we had mainframes that sat in data centers. Then we moved computing to the office, then into homes. That evolution was transformative in countless ways.
We are currently in the midst of the fourth major change in the computing model: SMAC, short for social, mobile, analytics, and cloud. The marketing folks don’t like that term, so they came up with something better: digital transformation. Whatever you call it, realize that when the computing model shifts, everything shifts – not just the technology, but the entire consumption model.
Here’s a good example. In our world of healthcare, we might see a young person with a sore throat using an app on a smartphone to make an appointment at a pharmacy mini-clinic. Fifteen minutes after walking in, she heads out the door, antibiotics in hand. Doctor’s visit? Not interested. Ergo, the industry must transform to deliver what the consumer wants.
Creating the Next Generation of an Industry
Another industry in dire need of transformation is biopharmaceuticals – not only for patient-centricity, which is just as critical here, but with the entire business model. The pre-tax cost for bringing a drug to market is now approximately $2.6 billion. According to a 2018 study by Deloitte, the return on investment for 12 large pharma companies has dropped from 10.1% to 1.9%. This is simply not sustainable. We must be able to deliver faster, less expensively, with better outcomes. This pressing need for wide-sweeping change is on a collision course with the fundamental technology shift where we find ourselves today. Indeed, these are interesting times. But this is where the opportunity lies.
How can we reduce the staggering cost of drug development? What if we could start with better ideas? What if we could do a better job of patient recruitment? What if we could plug into online communities and harness social media to better understand the patient population? How can we take advantage of this connectedness – the vision promised by digital transformation? How can we bring together pharma, academia, clinical research organizations, patient populations? What can we create as the next generation of an industry?
One of the most difficult aspects of clinical trials is attracting patients to participate and keeping them engaged. Consider that some 70% of the U.S. population lives more than a two-hour drive from the nearest study center. What if we could use this new technology to alleviate that problem? Can we minimize the required physical linkage with mobile apps? Can we use mobile technology to help people travel to the sites? Yes, we can; in fact, that’s already being done with ride-share apps.
What about improving the effectiveness of patient recruitment? There is a giant opportunity here by employing real-world analytics, essentially using data analysis to find the right patient populations, identify those who are the best fit for the trial, and make that match up front. Real-world evidence has come onto the scene and is being used to build synthetic control arms, which is particularly useful in oncology and rare disease. Further, analytics will allow us to adapt and adjust trials midstream, potentially enabling live control of the study. With the use of wearable devices and the Internet of Things, we are developing the ability to apply analytics to data flowing in from the trial and detect signals that something isn’t working. We can fail fast before spending an enormous sum going down the wrong road.
Now let’s move to the cloud. Cloud computing is an amazing thing because it drops the barrier to entry. Without spending $50 million to set everything up, we can provision any kind of hardware infrastructure on the fly using a credit card – globally – and test things out. Then we can jump to the analytics layer and buy capabilities from the service providers to sew it all together.
Interconnectedness Through Data Integration
For all this to work, of course, we need access to data – consistent, reliable, integrated data. This presents another challenge, because data is exploding. The devices that might have taken a physical reading once every three hours now do it every six microseconds.
Yet the next generation of technology will enable us to bring it all together: capture and secure the data, house it in the cloud, drive insights through analytics, and visualize with a dashboard what’s going on with the trial, or the lifecycle of the drug. The interconnectedness of all the pieces identifies patterns or validates theories we would not otherwise have recognized.
Will this really happen? Well, I remember very clearly during the web transition people saying, “I’m going to be a fast follower.” But by the time they picked up their feet to follow, they’d been left behind.
The Next Step
Digital transformation is already well underway in our industry, and in the next five years, it will accelerate. You do have to move with caution. But when the model shifts, we’re not talking only about kids with smartphones; we’re talking about the inexorable forces – and the investment capital – that are in flight right now. The driving demand is on the other side.
Don’t ignore it. Don’t just watch it and read about it. Be very aware of what’s going on and proactive about learning from peers and partners. Begin by gathering the right people within your organization to develop a strategy, and quickly identify a few feasible pilots. Put some small bets in place and test them. You may soon find that your organization is not waiting for the tidal wave, but is way ahead of it.
By Doug Barta,
Cheif Information Officer