The announcement that Novartis and Qualcomm Ventures have formed a joint venture to invest $100 million in digital health is significant and suggests that big pharma is transitioning from talk to action in the strategy to "move beyond the pill."
This new move builds on their ongoing relationship, which includes a partnership to use Qualcomm Life’s 2net technology for Novartis’ clinical trials.
What did Novartis see in Qualcomm and why does this partnership raise the bar for pharma?
First, a little about Qualcomm's technology and how it is relevant for healthcare. The 2net is a device, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, that plugs into a normal wall outlet. There are multiple wi-fi, Bluetooth and cellular technologies built into the device that are able to connect with dozens of different wireless activity trackers, symptom trackers and wireless glucose monitors and then upload the data to a secure personalized web portal, where patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals can review.
Most of the top medical and consumer devices available right now automatically pair with the 2net, so users don't have to go through the sometimes frustrating "pairing" exercise. This solves one of the "last mile" user experience hurdles to easy device connectivity, especially for consumers who aren’t mobile savvy.
Novartis is testing the use of 2net technology as a way to monitor and track patients who are enrolled in their clinical trials. By solving one of the big problems in clinical trials, timely and accurate data capture, this technology offers a very powerful and practical example of using digital tools in pharma.
Now Novartis is actually making a major bet on digital health. The company is specifically looking for technologies that go beyond the pill — they called it out at the press conference. This joint venture will invest in early-stage companies that are bringing new tools, products and services to market that enhance relationships between physicians and patients and improve overall quality of life for its users.
While a number of pharma companies have been experimenting in the digital health arena — Sanofi has made investments and Merck Ventures bought into Preventis — no one has really made this level of open-ended investment. The fact that now there is a joint venture between a major, global, Swiss-based pharmaceutical company and “the most active digital health investment company” (according to Rock Health) is huge — it's a really positive step for digital health.
These developments say a lot about pharma’s renewed awakening to the importance of making a play in digital health. Rumors are flying. In San Francisco at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in January, there was a lot of public and private discussion about how pharma leadership is beginning to look at digital technologies in fresh ways, from front-end efficiency and reliability investments in clinical trials with real-time patient tracking to ways to help patients stay on their regimens to become healthier.
All of this activity reflects a very promising turn in awareness on the part of pharma. The industry is moving away from just talking about moving “beyond the pill” to actually making investments that will make it happen.