The Missing Link to Real-World Innovation

The pharma industry loves digital pilots but struggles to translate them into live services



Coming back from last week’s eyeforpharma Barcelona, I was struck by how many times I heard the phrases “test and learn”, “start small”, and “proof of concept”.

Working for a digital agency, this was music to our ears, even more so coming from an industry typically so averse to experimentation outside the laboratory.

Yet, amid all the discussion, there was an absence of real-world examples. Call me impatient, but I was hoping for evidence of live services that started out as a proof of concept (POC). Speaking to delegates in the know, it became clear that precious few POC pilots have yet to see the light of day for one reason or another.

The problem appears to be that a POC is considered separate from the digital service it is designed to inform. A POC pilot is safe, while testing in Innovation Labs is sanitized. Starting small is fine when no real customers are involved but going ‘live’ on the internet is far from safe – and this is where the shutters come down.

The risk-averse mindset of pharma is certainly changing, but we still seem reticent to launch services that aren’t perfect into the big wide world. Sadly, this dooms most POCs, however insightful, to a high shelf, gathering dust forever.

The design and build of a ‘real’ service is still done in the traditional ‘waterfall’ way, where outputs of a POC are funneled into the analysis phase, with design and build taking months, with testing taking place at the end. The service might launch a year after the POC finished, its value lost in the mists of time.

Without launching a ‘minimum viable product’ and then developing iteratively with live users, the same risks apply as in traditional waterfall projects. They cannot adapt to changes in needs, while unnecessary constraints are introduced too early and the cost of change explodes.

One answer to this dilemma is to add a ‘private beta’ phase between POC and Live. By restricting the service to a limited number of ‘private’ users, perhaps keeping it behind a login, regulatory compliance can be met while gathering all-important feedback on real user behavior.

We used this approach with FTSE 100 medtech company Smith & Nephew’s digital service, SalesLife online, which enables sales reps to assist surgeons to source and use its products for complex operations, often live in theatre. Lack of access to the right information could have dire consequences for both the patient and surgeon, and would effectively end the latter’s relationship with a sales rep.

We built then tested a proof of concept with real users, then launched a private beta to test functionality with live users conducting real operations. The resulting service transformed the way sales reps work, giving them access to the latest consistent and compliant information without the need for a internet connection in the operating room. By designing around users, it was possible to improve the relationship between sales reps and customers, and the service is now live across Smith & Nephew’s global salesforce.

As seen at Smith & Nephew, a private beta phase allows a team to keep on POCing while giving the service room to breathe. It gets the service into the hands of users in the wild, early and safely, and dramatically reduces time to market, enabling continuous adaptation to user needs. By driving user engagement through co-development, it reduces costs, and, best of all, lets a company ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to patient-centric healthcare.

A private beta phase is the missing link in digital innovation, taking a service out of the lab and into the real world. To quote Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook: “Done is better than perfect.”


Jack Fitzgerald is Healthcare Director at Valtech UK


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