Pharma And Digital Innovation: A Missed Opportunity?

Earlier this month, Julie Papanek of Canaan Partners spoke with the Wall Street Journal about the changing needs of the pharmaceutical industry. She mentioned: 

  • How pharma’s traditional physician marketing model is breaking down because many major health systems aren’t allowing sales reps in the door 
  • The push for drug firms to prove their products actually benefit patients — especially in the real world 
  • The need to develop better technology solutions that help optimize promotion on social media now that the FDA has provided clarity on how drug firms can advertise via this channel

The Wall Street Journal suggests that entrepreneurs and innovators are not paying enough attention to the growing and pressing needs of pharmaceutical companies in the digital health arena. But is this really the case? 



Yes and no. 

Yes, more innovations are needed. But it’s primarily a matter of aligning product market fit than the need to produce a lot more solutions. 

And, no, innovators are not ignoring Big Pharma, they’re scrambling to get in the door (more on this below).

The key to digital health success in pharma will be about understanding the unique and changing needs of the industry and developing solutions — sometimes via a process of co-creation — that work well for drug firms. 

Let’s take another look at the industry’s needs. As Papanek mentioned, marketing and clinical data collection and mining are two. Additional areas of greatest need include: 

  • Strategic and organizational support to determine the best ways to commercialize existing assets and competencies in diagnostics, genetics, Big Data and more 
  • Development of a digital health pipeline that will accelerate the introduction of profitable and scalable products and services that will boost brand loyalty, replace a portion of lost revenue due to expiring patents, etc.

Technology won’t meet all these needs. People with specialized knowledge and an innovative mindset will also play a big role. 

There are other factors at play. I spend a lot of time looking closely at investment data, keeping track of global digital health innovations and communicating with pharma executives about their needs in health tech. This work has taught me that: 

  • Pharmaceutical executives are flooded with digital health opportunities: Many startups and established companies are coming to drug firms with a range of innovations, from mobile health solutions to smart pills. Executives and leaders at these firms are having trouble triaging these innovations to determine which ones will meet key organizational, business and health goals.
  • Drug firms are starting to turn to companies with multiple products and services for help: For example, earlier this year Qualcomm announced a number of deals with pharmaceutical companies to provide key digital health services and support technology innovations via venture funding.
  • Companies are working hard to drive digital health innovation from within: A number of firms have created internal innovation groups that are responsible for locating, developing and supporting the integration of digital health technologies into their operations. There is a special need for this work in developing countries like Brazil and China. 

Overall, the digital health innovation picture in Big Pharma is a lot brighter than the headlines would have you believe. But, there’s clearly a lot more work to be done. 

The next few years are going to be very interesting.

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