Words by James Coker
There’s a general consensus that pharma has not yet put itself in a position to take on the healthcare challenges of today. “Pharma companies need to change their culture, adopt a more agile mindset, and make sure that they take the best and brightest ideas forward and partner to create more holistic healthcare”, declares Paul Simms, Chairman, eyeforpharma, just ahead of the start-up elevator pitches at this year’s eyeforpharma Barcelona conference.
The inclusion of a session dedicated to start-up pitches at the event is indicative of the vital role these companies are now playing in the creation of innovative healthcare solutions. “It’s now fairly common knowledge that start-up and pharma are two communities that need to work together”, adds Simms.
But what can pharma do differently to emulate the kind of innovative healthcare solutions so often achieved by start-up companies? If these lessons are implemented, then, combined with the vast resources big pharma have at their disposal, the sky’s the limit. That idiom is really the key. Start-ups tend to set bold targets, seeking to solve major healthcare issues and even crises through digital technology. So, how is this mindset born? “It’s about placing the seed in the right place and then seeing something grow”, explains John Zibert, Chief Medical Officer, LEO Innovation Lab. “It’s hard to figure out where we should plant the digital seed in order to create success – both for the company and also for patients and healthcare professionals.”
For LEO Innovation Lab, the answer lies in their offices, which used to be home to a bank in the city centre of Copenhagen, Denmark. This office location is the perfect physical environment that innovation requires. “The ceiling is extremely high and the walls very wide; therefore, you think very high and wide, and have high ambitions. It’s an environment where we have lots of millennials working and they require a workspace like this. Food for thought when you want to build innovation and try to do something different”, elucidates Zibert. To illustrate this point, the vault in the cellar of the old bank has been put to particularly good use – it now stocks cold beer.
Establishing this mindset in pharma can also facilitate partnerships with the most innovative people. It has certainly played a big part in the highly successful global smart-tablet partnership between Otsuka Pharmaceuticals and Proteus Digital Health. “If you were to walk into the corporate HQ of Otsuka in Japan and you looked above, you’d see tomatoes growing on the ceiling. It’s done on purpose and the idea is that you should change your perspective and view things differently than you did before”, says David O’Reilly, Chief Platform Officer, Proteus. “Then if you walked into the corporate HQ of Proteus in California, you’d see pictures and statues of flying pigs in our lobby because that’s a symbol of our company: to do the impossible and what other people say can’t be done. So, we have this different perspective as part of our cultural identities and it’s actually worked quite well as partners.”
It is only through bold, ambitious ideas that the challenges such as chronic diseases and an ageing population can be tackled. Pharma needs to attract and inspire tech-savvy individuals with innovative mindsets, who are critical to the risk-taking mentality through which innovative ideas flourish. Establishing the working environment of a start-up is a critical first step on this path.