Words by Isabel O’Brien
Business strategies over the past 18 months have been about providing stability during uncertainty, but as the dust begins to settle from the global crisis, the pharmaceutical industry is beginning to look towards moving from continuity back to growth.
When faced with the harsh winters of Antarctica, Emperor penguins have evolved to sustain themselves in hostile and unpredictable conditions. To minimise harm as individuals, they rock back and forth on their heels, reducing their contact with the icy glacier. They also huddle together as a group, continually rotating so the waddle remains collectively warm. When the sun finally pools the ice and brings respite, the penguins will have lost 40% of their body fat, but due to their evolution and solidarity with one another, most will have survived and be ready to thrive again by spring.
COVID-19 has closely resembled a bitter Antarctica winter. Pharmaceutical companies were forced into a period of near hibernation as they had to limit their operations and prioritise business continuity over growth. “At the beginning of the pandemic, our immediate priority was ensuring the safety and health of our employees. That meant doing some things that were difficult from a business perspective, but clearly the right thing to do,” says Kevin O’Brien, President, Merz Therapeutics. Every organisation was faced with difficult decisions as they configured how to continue their operations while still protecting their staff, but also remaining ready and available to healthcare professionals and patients. The idea of growth was shelved, and survival mode engaged out of necessity.
While business continuity can act as an iceberg to progress, for many pharma companies, the crisis period at the start of the pandemic led to rapid, overdue transformation of both their communication channels and operational functionalities. “The change came with positives and with opportunities for us,” says Mircea Cubillos, Vice President, Hematology EMEA, Commercial Strategy Lead, Janssen. The evolution of physical to digital meetings, virtual congresses, and remote clinicals trials were all a by-product of continuity, but undoubtedly can now be framed as timely and vital advancements. “We found ways to enhance our patient-centric approach and stabilise the situation as much as possible,” says Cubillos. “We had to be thoughtful and innovative… Ultimately, that spurred some changes that helped us become more efficient and customer-centric,” echoes O’Brien.
But now that the peak is over, and a brighter period is in sight, it is time for companies to evaluate the past few months and start looking beyond survival, and towards the blossoming of growth. “As we look ahead 6 months, a year, and even 3 years, it is critical that we continue to implement our new ways of working with each other and our customers. It would be all too easy to fall back into how we used to do things, but that’s not our path forward,” says O’Brien. “It is very important that we do not return to our old behaviours, because if we do that, we are not going to be successful,” agrees Cubillos. When emerging from uncertainty, it can be tempting to hunker down in the safety of comfort zones, but the industry must be bold and keep striding into the headwind of transformation.
While business continuity placed emphasis on sustaining existing services and communications, a period of growth will signal a return to prioritising innovation. To do this successfully, it will be vital for all companies to actively gather insights from their customers to ensure that any advancements are angled in the right direction. “If we want to grow, we must continue to listen to our customers and ensure the training, education, and product support we provide align with their evolving needs,” says O’Brien. This could apply to creating hybrid structures for meetings with healthcare professionals. “Many of our customers want to continue to connect with us virtually, and we’re happy to engage in the way that works best for them. We can meet both in person and via digital meetings – whichever option fits their preference,” says O’Brien.
But fundamentally, the key focus will be in driving innovation across all treatment landscapes, particularly in those that were affected by disruptions and delays. “Moving back to growth is moving back to being 100% focused on bringing additional solutions and hope to patients,” says Cubillos. “While we never stopped doing that, we had a lot of distractions from a professional and a personal perspective.” A US-focused study conducted between February to May of last year has found that there were 43% less clinical trials than would have been expected had the pandemic not occurred, therefore jumpstarting drug development must be an urgent priority. “We are adapting to this new normal and the uncertainty that this can bring, so we must make sure the patient is at the heart of our decisions. We must get their advice on the strategies that we are launching and the R&D programmes that we are trying to deliver,” affirms Cubillos.
As we emerge from the tundra of COVID-19, it will be important to reflect on the period that has passed, but also envision an ambitious future. “We need to use our heritage and challenger mindset to take science to places it hasn’t been before. That’s been the biggest driver for our growth so far, and I am convinced that is the secret sauce to sustain our performance,” says Cubillos. For many pharma companies, growth is not a speck on the horizon but a tangible reality within their grasp. “Because we found ways to pivot and adapt to the changing environment and our customers’ needs, our business began to rebound by the fall of 2020,” reveals O’Brien. “In fact, we’ve been on a path of growth since, and we recently implemented a new strategic growth plan for our North America business.”
There is much to be learned from the resilience of Emperor penguins, but their ability to adapt and collaborate are two of the key values that enabled business continuity throughout this pandemic. “COVID-19 has been a burden for all of us and I think we should be very determined to remove barriers as fast as we can to deliver on our commitments,” concludes Cubillos. Now the winter has passed, new life can burst free from the ice, bringing with it a new season of prosperity.