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Tech versus Pharma: Compete or Co-operate?

Words by Louise Rogers.

‘Where pharma is part of the solution’: the topic at this year’s eyeforpharma, Barcelona, which discussed pharma’s role in going ‘beyond the pill’ and creating a future that is personalised for patients. But being part of the solution suggests that this isn’t pharma’s role alone. In a world where the advancement of technology has exponentially advanced over the last 20 years and patients are becoming increasingly connected to their health via digital platforms, it’s no wonder tech companies are joining pharma in contributing to new healthcare solutions.

In 2014, Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) division, DeepMind, embarked on a partnership with Moorfields Eye Hospital to discover whether using AI analysis of retinal scans to detect early signs of visual degeneration is more effective than human analysis. Then in late 2017, Microsoft announced its partnership with various medical centres combining AI, cloud tech, and industry research to create a healthcare chatbot, a platform serving as a surrogate doctor with the ability to provide an automated medical diagnosis for symptoms experienced. These cover just some of the ways the tech titans are transforming the healthcare industry.

So, will it be ‘Pharma plus Tech’ or ‘Pharma versus Tech’? Can both truly co-operate as evenly weighted business partners, or will one develop a monopoly on leading innovative healthcare solutions?

“With 160 billion Google healthcare searches last year, are we progressing to a situation in which “Dr Google will see you now?

“I don’t think it will be one leading the other,” comments Jacob Suñol, Digital Chief Technology Officer, Roche Diabetes Care. “Pharma will have to lead in some cases and tech in others, as each team still need a few more pieces of the others.” It is safe to say that tech has developed significantly more rapidly than medicine over the last decade and so for pharma to obtain the missing pieces, acquisition of inhouse talent regarding tech and patient engagement is imperative. “It’s not Google versus us, or Apple versus us. Those companies are great at analysing their processes and bettering them. This we can learn from them as well as partner with them”, Suñol says — and partnering with tech is exactly what some pharma companies have started to do. Bayer recently initiated a partnership with the Swedish medical tech start-up Coala Life to electronically find the many individuals with undiagnosed heart disease, thereby helping to prevent stroke and myocardial infarction through early treatment.

David Verdura, former Global Digital Solutions Head, Novartis, now a freelance Digital Health Consultant, has some different views on pharma’s current stance: “If pharma hasn’t realised yet that they are going to have to change to become more like tech companies, they must act now, because tech companies are entering the healthcare space and they will be direct competitors”, he says. “They must identify and understand the needs of patients, the pain points along their journey, and define and apply the technology to solve this. Tech companies first talk about the needs of their users and then about what technology to use. They have the advantage of having digital as a base of their business models.” With 160 billion Google healthcare searches last year, are we progressing to a situation in which “Dr Google will see you now?”

Elena Bondigliolo, Managing Director of Health & Life Sciences EMEA, Microsoft, has no doubt that pharma will be part of the solution: “Particularly when pharma can be powered by systems of intelligence and reasoning over an increasing amount of health data”, she explains. “But it isn’t just about pharma adopting these technologies. It’s about adopting a mindset that will embrace these technologies when they are implemented. For such a traditional, fixed industry, having to adopt and embrace a start-up culture may prove difficult.”

“It isn’t just about pharma adopting technologies. It’s about adopting a mindset that will embrace these technologies”

Pharma is certainly an industry that excels at, and is experienced in, the research, development, manufacturing, and commercialisation of medicines, but tech companies are closer to consumers and understand what makes money. To embrace a start-up culture, pharma shouldn’t approach tech as a commodity but as a new mindset, encouraging an ecosystem with people who really believe that the transformation is possible. Like Google, who are known to reward staff for failure, the pharma industry needs to be prepared to fail. After all, like the businessman Peter Drucker once said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Where does that leave both industries in the healthcare space? It seems the way forward is the combination of what both parties do best; the healthcare industry should continue producing innovative medicines that patients can clearly see improving healthcare outcomes, and for the tech industry to contribute their expertise in facilitating patient diagnosis and accessibility.

Bondigliolo concludes: “The partnership and democratisation of the tools available will be at the heart of the transformation of tomorrow.”

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