Only One Thing Can Save Pharma

Innovation is essential for pharma's future success, but where does it come from and how do you build it into an organization?



The pharmaceutical industry is standing on the edge of an unknown world. The rising costs of medicines, health systems struggling to cope with ever-greater demands, empowered patients and demanding payers; to remain relevant, transformation is essential, while many believe that only radical innovation can save pharma.

However, such a journey will throw up unprecedented challenges, especially as the highly-regulated world of science collides with the highly-creative world of technology. Companies may be experimenting with apps or wearable technologies but current programs barely scratch the surface.

Forward-thinking companies are increasingly recognizing that the status quo is no longer sustainable. We spoke to three – UCB, Janssen and Takeda – asking what innovation means to them and how they are integrating it into their business models, as well as Verily, formerly Google Life Sciences.

Getting messy
“We are in the business of providing solutions to important healthcare problems with our medicines at the core,” says Gregory Miller, Head of Global Innovation at UCB. “We are not looking at technology per se, because our core business is medicine. But, anything that can surround and complement our medicine to increase its impact and value to society is in scope for us.”

The starting point should always be to identify the problem rather than the solution, he says. “It is important to know the technology, but don’t fall into the trap of starting with the technology. If someone tells you that bitcoin technology or big data analytics is the future, question it, because they could be selling you a square that doesn’t fit into the circle of your organization. You need to be really clear about the circle, the problem you want to solve.”

While UCB has introduced an I4 process (insight, ideation, iteration, industrialize), Miller stresses that it is easier said than done. “As an industry, we are used to going linear, we have a vision, we know where we are going to land and we execute against it. But in the world of innovation it’s different. You don’t know what the endpoint is going to be, you only know the starting point. It’s not predictive, it’s creative, and it’s not validation – you don’t test a solution in the market, you co-create. It’s an unknown pathway, it’s a very messy process and the benchmark is not within the industry. If you do decide to go on the adventure, it’s messy.”

But you don’t need to get messy alone, he says. “The myth of the lone wolf genius doesn’t exist. You cannot do this alone. It is a team sport.”

The company has a rigorous selection criteria to identify the right partners; from 200 candidates to join the TAXIS (Team of Accelerators for Innovative Solutions), 39 have been chosen. “I hope to be able to say more about these successes a year from now. Maybe it will be a disaster but this is the prototype we are testing,” he says.

Pedal to the metal
Janssen is arguably already well ahead in the innovation game. Named as the most innovative global pharmaceutical firm four years in a row, it has been actively looking for new ideas and technologies to advance its drug discovery and development activities for several years.

For Barry Springer, VP, Strategy Technology and Innovation at Janssen Biologics, innovation is an essential part of healthcare affordability. “We need to be doing something different to reduce the overall cost of healthcare,” he says. “We are still in a mode where the core activity of every pharmaceutical company is to make drugs, and provide those medicines to diagnosed people. We will continue to do that but we're also working on changing the way people will look at health care in the future.”

In a hundred years' time, people will look back and wonder why their ancestors waited to get sick before doing something about it, he predicts. “If we could prevent and intercept disease, and cure those people who still fall ill at an earlier stage, when the disease can be reversed, it would be a fantastic outcome for the whole healthcare environment and transform today's 'disease care' into true health care,” he says.

As such, Janssen is looking at how best to predict and prevent disease, and has launched a disease interception initiative, among other novel approaches. Its Disease Interception Accelerator unit integrates innovative science, novel therapeutics, precision diagnostics and new business models to develop solutions for people around the world.

“The vast majority of us start out life pretty healthily but, at some point, we all develop a deleterious health effect that will lead to death,” says Springer. “We may have drugs sitting on the shelf today that could be effective in intercepting disease, but in most cases we don’t know yet how to predict what the future health risks are for most people. Analysis of genomic and other health care big data holds promise to make those predictions more reliable.”

Statins are a good illustration, he says. “Sustained high cholesterol levels have been directly linked with heart disease, so we take statins to prevent that. However, to get to the point where we identified the relevant biomarker and treatment took years of outstanding research and was incredibly expensive. How do we expand that approach more quickly and cheaply into a wide range of diseases?” One way is using big data analytics to chart a healthy person’s progression towards a future disease state.

The main stumbling block to innovation is not a lack of ideas. Janssen recognized early on that testing ideas as quickly as possible at the lowest possible cost was crucial. Here, external collaborations were necessary, it decided, setting up shop within innovation hotspots throughout the world, including San Francisco, Boston, Shanghai and London.

Each center is staffed by disease area and technical experts tasked with finding and building relationships in local communities in a bid to capitalize on great science, investment opportunities and novel ideas. J&J Innovation targets these innovation hotspots, while JLABS enables entrepreneurs to quickly and efficiently access state-of-the-art research facilities to test their ideas.  JLABS has now set up operations in La Jolla, CA, South San Francisco, CA, Houston, TX, Toronto, Canada, Cambridge, MA and a New York City facility will open in 2018.

“We are looking to fundamentally change the paradigm,” says Springer. “We know the barriers in the life sciences industry are very high – a facility, equipment, hiring talent is expensive and it drives up cost. If we find an entrepreneur, we will work to get them into a JLAB, introduce them to investors and give scientific advice with no strings attached because we know the ecosystem has to thrive.”

As part of the strategy, the company has expanded collaborations to include groups of investors, and individual scientists and engineers. “We are continuing to drive cutting-edge science internally but, with so much innovation occurring externally, we are also constantly looking for the best partners. If we all take the risk, we all reap the benefits.”

The novel approaches adopted by both Janssen and UCB are a far cry from the traditional paradigm of pharmaceutical companies working in isolation, fiercely protective of their ideas. Companies that continue to operate in this way, do so at their peril.

Failure is not an option
Another company that sees digital innovation as crucial to future success is Takeda, which has also launched a company-wide acceleration program.

The mission is to embed a digital mindset across the organization, says Bruno Villetelle, Chief Digital Officer, with staff encouraged to develop “cutting-edge curiosity” through digital hubs. The company has also launched its own version of Dragon’s Den, through which aspiring ‘intrapreneurs’ hope to secure investment.

“Pushing boundaries is important,” he says. “We want everyone in Takeda to embrace this but we also need to work within an ecosystem of partners too – pharmaceutical, venture capitalists, regulators, entrepreneurs, payers. It’s only when you’re working at the interface of disciplines that you find the best and most interesting innovations.”

Failure is not an option, says Villetelle, who believes that learning from mistakes and developing a culture that allows people to accept failure is essential.

Verily, verily, life is but a dream

There is little doubt that big data will play a major role in future innovation; its potential to reduce costs across healthcare is huge, which is why so many pharma companies are exploring how they can harness its power.

Verily Life Sciences, sister company to Google and Deepmind, has a mission to ‘make the world’s health data useful so people can enjoy healthy lives’, but it can’t do that without data, says Chief Technical Officer, Dr Brian Otis.

“My passion is to try to create technologies that interface really conveniently with the human body so we can start collecting this vital data,” he says. “All of us have very valuable blood glucose and blood pressure data that is going unlogged and unanalyzed, let alone making it useful. I believe we can create platforms to accurately, inexpensively and conveniently collect most of this data. But we must understand what data is most useful. After that we need to capture it, distill it and make it actionable for the patients.”

With several ongoing pharma partnerships – including GSK, Sanofi and J&J – Verily wants more collaboration, says Otis.

The company started with a clean-slate approach, building up the necessary technological platform.  Designing integrated circuits to interface with the human body, working out how to get data from the body to a mobile device via a Bluetooth connection and then to the cloud as quickly as possible were all vital steps in the process.

An understanding of battery technology, wireless connectivity, micro-scale sensing, different types of biocompatible packaging techniques and different wearable devices were all essential in building up the platform that it can then be applied to different disease areas.

An early project sees Verily applying its technology to help nearly 400 million diabetes patients worldwide, says Otis, adding that current disease management methods are inefficient. “Patients record data points four or five times a day on paper, data which then vanishes. Biology changes quickly, so a few data points a day is not enough to manage big fluctuations. We need to fill the gaps in data but this takes new technology that does not exist today.”

The company has multiple ongoing efforts to create sensors for diabetes; the well-publicized glucose sensing contact lens with Novartis Alcon, as well as a miniaturized continuous glucose monitor with Dexcomhas.

Verily is calling on the pharmaceutical industry to help them further understand how to enhance the technology and apply it in other areas. “There is an interplay between what is needed from the perspective of improving outcomes and what is possible from a technological perspective,” he says.

The world has always had huge health problems but we are at a point in history where we are also seeing technology emerge with the potential to solve them. However, it is only through constant innovation that pharma and its partners will realize that potential.


Gregory Miller, Barry Springer and Brian Otis all shared insight at eyeforpharma Barcelona in March. We have just released the keynote speakers for the 2018 event - view here.


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