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The Scaling Conundrum

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Words by Isabel O’Brien

As Zoom stock prices peak, meme culture becomes cross-generational, and our Wi-Fi routers long wistfully for the day we return to our offices, we find ourselves immersed in a technological revolution that none of us knew we were heading for. The scaling of technology, taking innovation and maximising it to become transformational, is often not actioned by the pharmaceutical industry. With innovators like an army of frustrated knitters, given yarn for a scarf but not enough for patchworks greater.

“There’s one thing, which is starting innovation. There is another thing, which is scaling innovation. And when I talk to executives, they say that the scalability is far more the issue than starting it,” says Paul Simms, Chairman of eyeforpharma, at eyeforpharma Barcelona Virtual 2020.

In the same talk, Dr. Ali Abusnina, Senior Data Scientist, Boehringer Ingelheim, says: “The desire to change, the desire to adopt the technology, especially in healthcare and the pharma industry; we have a more preservative approach than being brave and adopting it, harnessing it, and making the best out of it – we often focus on the negatives of adopting technology.”

Trial culture is rife: sales teams have experimented with meeting customers virtually, through video calling, co-browsing (a phone call while jointly browsing the web), and social media. Yet, despite research by OpenInTech showing that you can make 13 visits a day virtually compared to 8 in person, in addition to a cost reduction from $106 to $46 per meeting, far-reaching roll-out was never instigated – until the onset of the pandemic.

A lack of foresight can also prevent scaling, with Simms asking: “How can we make sure that these things don’t just reside within our X labs, or our innovation labs, and do indeed permeate through the rest of the business and actually move the needle?”

Key leaders of such labs, tasked with spearheading innovation, must challenge themselves to think beyond a project’s initial conception and launch, and look ahead to what it could be in the future, in order to avoid scenarios in which a pattern is designed that proves to be infeasible for mass delivery.

“It could be a contract that you signed with a start-up that cannot go from one market to ten markets,” says Haider Alleg, Global Head of Digital Excellence, Ferring Pharmaceuticals. “If you’re an entrepreneur out there you will hear a lot that something is not scalable, or it is not a company.”

We often focus on the negatives of adopting technology

Whilst we cannot judge a pharma company and entrepreneurs on the same scale, technological innovation in pharma is grounded in advancement rather than revenue, but the potential for expansion must be interwoven at the early stages – seams left loose, so they can be unpicked and joined up later.

“You must also be comfortable to kill any pilot,” concludes Haider, raising the point that not all projects are destined to scale. “My colleagues at Ferring, they hear me say it a lot in my meetings: can we kill this? What are the conditions to scale, or to kill? And for me, that is a positive and healthy way to play the devil’s advocate.”

While a mindset shift is long overdue, pharma must also reserve thread from their former outlook, and make critical decisions in regard to greenlighting expansion: “There will always be digital solutions, or products, or projects that are launched to fulfil a specific task, and then can be killed,” ends Abusnina.

When scaling technological innovation, the industry must be brave, have foresight, and be critical in making the decision on whether a project should have a lifetime, or limit, ahead of it. Technology creates possibilities, and, as seen during the pandemic, has the ultimate capacity to change lives and have bearing on our collective future. Containment will surely fall out of fashion in the coming years, with yarn supplied in abundance to pharma’s long-suffering technological innovators.

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