How the pharma sector is going digital to speed up R&D

By Jayashree Ramakrishna

Posted on 01-19-2021

A Q&A with Abhimanyu Verma, VP of applied technology innovation at Novartis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put pharmaceutical companies in the global spotlight, as governments, healthcare professionals, and citizens around the world eagerly await a viable vaccine and new therapies. Meanwhile, millions of people rely on the pharma sector to continue delivering treatments for a range of conditions, from cancer to multiple sclerosis.

For Abhimanyu Verma, VP of applied technology innovation at Novartis, this call to action is a double-edged sword. Pharmaceutical companies have never been busier or more invested in developing new products, but the increased pressure sitting on them is at odds with the rising cost and complexity of getting new therapies to market.

In response, the industry is looking to new technologies and digital workflows. Verma recently sat down with us to discuss this transformation and outline how the move to digital will inject new life into pharmaceutical R&D.

This is a transformative time for all businesses, but the pharma sector is really feeling the pressure to act quickly. How have the events of 2020 affected its priorities?

There are many forces driving change in the pharmaceutical sector, but a chief imperative is to strip the complexity and cost out of internal operations, which will help companies to deliver therapies to patients more quickly.

The industry has made headway with digital transformation in recent years, but pharma companies still rely on a number of “paper” processes, and there’s work to do in transitioning their entire organization to digital workflows.

On a macro level, the industry will steadily move away from volume-based pricing and towards an outcome-based model whereby they only get paid (in full or in part) if the therapies they deliver do what they’re supposed to do. This works well in certain indications, especially in specific cases of oncology and rare diseases, but things get more subjective when assessing a treatment’s effectiveness when dealing with other forms of disease.

The pharma sector has also begun to embrace the concept of open innovation beyond their own labs. Much like tech companies rely on open-source developers to build or enhance their products, many of today’s biggest pharmaceutical breakthroughs come from smaller labs. Major Pharma businesses collaborate with these niche players and help them to scale, like Pfizer working with BioNTech on a joint COVID-19 vaccine.

Demand on the pharma sector has never been higher, but you say R&D productivity is on the decline. What are the main culprits and what is the industry doing to address these?

As with any large organization, the bigger we get, the more complicated our operations and processes become. That creates increasingly complex operational and organizational hurdles that stand in the way of discovering, developing and producing therapies. Add this to increased healthcare costs and changing societal expectations, and it’s clear our industry needs to adapt and carve out a more sustainable way forward.

Today, leading pharma companies are razor-focused on improving their R&D and speed-to-market from the inside out, starting with the adoption of digital workflows but also simplifying supply chains, applying innovative techniques to speed up clinical trials, and making crucial data accessible to their teams in the field, plants and across their operations.

You like to frame the pharmaceutical sector’s digital transformation around the goal of getting therapies to patients 10 times faster. What does that look like in practice, and what wins have you seen this year?

It’s an ambitious aim, but it’s also a valuable north star when making new technology investments. Our industry continues to explore a range of tech, from blockchain, quantum computing and AI to digital processes, modern data sorting, and intelligent document workflows. The important thing is to stay focused and ensure we use these in a way that supports our digital agenda.

A clear plan also helps companies to set concrete metrics — for instance, to reduce manufacturing time and costs for a new diabetes drug by 10 percent. Without measurement, there is no way of knowing if you’re using new technologies effectively or if you should go in a different direction.

You mentioned digital workflows. The digitization of document processes is one area getting a lot of attention. Where do you see its potential in helping pharma businesses to work more efficiently?

Let’s start with why digital document workflows are so important. A pharmaceutical organization is really a data processing and output company. We are rich in information that we’ve collected over decades, but much of it is saved in Word documents, PDFs, and even paper in some cases.

Now consider that a typical large pharma company reviews and submits close to 10,000 documents or pieces of information to both regulatory and other bodies around the world each year, and that this number explodes even further if the product mix includes generics or biosimilars. All of this information, from new drug submissions, to clinical trial applications, to manufacturing processes, to marketing and stakeholder engagement, moves through a company’s document workflow and content management on a daily basis.

It takes a massive infrastructure of people, technologies, and processes to review this information and make sure it is accurate, which also means there’s an immense opportunity to reimagine and simplify the process. Even a simple fix to the sign-off chain could unlock a world of value in the form of human potential. We currently have researchers, scientists, and people with PhDs spending hours on ensuring the right information is stored and captured in the right place — surely, their time would be better spent on researching and curing diseases.

How do companies with so many moving parts and critical processes prioritize change and evolve in a sustainable way?

One of the biggest mistakes one can make is to say, “Let’s transform everything.” That just creates chaos at the expense of delivering value. It’s better to take a value-based approach to digital transformation, setting clear priorities and being brutally honest with yourself about what your company can live without. This works quite well, even it’s sometimes difficult to let go of great ideas when there are so many things to work on. It’s equally dangerous to stick to the approaches, solutions, partners that failed in the past. Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to completely reimagine how we operate.

Finally, you need to be mindful that some technologies are still a mystery to many people in your organization. Some employees are cynical about change, which is only healthy, while others are overly optimistic. That’s why my team drives transformation while taking a measured approach to introducing and scaling digital technologies. After all, we work in an industry that regularly uses fax machines and paper, so we’re still bridging the physical and digital world, and that bridging is as much down to culture as it is technological.

What are some of the pharmaceutical industry’s immediate priorities? How about in the slightly longer term, say, five years?

Pharmaceutical companies have three big bets in the short term, chief of which is to address the slowdown in R&D productivity. We are also constantly looking for ways to simplify our operations, from our supply chain, to HR, to business services. Finally, the industry is digitizing and evolving its sales and marketing operations, for instance by giving employees and customers access to crucial information on-demand.

Looking ahead, we will move towards business models that are more outcome-based and patient-focused. This journey will involve not just the industry but also the entire healthcare ecosystem, including governments, insurers, hospitals, pharmacies, and patient groups. Moreover, there is no single way forward, and it will take both experimentation and trust across the ecosystem for us to succeed, which is where technology will serve as a valuable enabler.

Speaking of scale, major digital transformations also require a global cultural shift. How are companies driving change internally and what has the reaction been from employees?

That’s an excellent point. Cultural and digital transformation are interwoven by design. Your employees’ needs drive change, and your technology investment addresses those needs while inspiring new questions and possibilities.

It’s also important to embrace experimentation and have an open mind, not just in core drug discovery and lab work. It’s OK for people to make mistakes as part of this digital journey — that just means they’re exploring the limits of how technology can help them in their work, and I see this spirit of experimentation spreading across the industry.

Of course, companies need to balance discovery with a responsible approach. We don’t come from the culture as other businesses that can release a beta of their product and optimize it over time. When you’re going to inject something into someone, you need to get things 100 percent right. What we can do is get better and faster at developing our products, we have an immense opportunity ahead of us.

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Topics: Digital Transformation, Insights & Inspiration, Customer Stories, Healthcare, COVID-19, Document Cloud, CMO by Adobe,

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