//Life on the Cutting Edge: Does Pharma Really Like It There?
August 24, 2015

Life on the Cutting Edge: Does Pharma Really Like It There?

Companies in the pharmaceutical industry often brag about their groundbreaking science, and rightly so. Their science improves — and even saves — countless lives. But an interesting dichotomy arises when you compare the industry’s attitudes toward science with those it has toward technology.

Cutting-edge science? Of course! Science drives new products and modern medicine. Science is showcased on pharma corporate websites; it’s the centerpiece of our conferences; it’s touted to HCPs. It seems so obvious. Without cutting-edge science, where would pharma be? Helping ensure the promulgation of brilliant scientific innovation is, in a real way, pharma’s raison d’être.

Cutting-edge technology, though? It’s not the same. True, you’d be hard pressed to find a pharma company without a digital presence, but when you look for an industry known for its amazing, groundbreaking application of technology, pharma is not where you look first.

Given the attention paid to the need for beyond-the-pill solutions for professionals, patients and caregivers, this doesn’t quite make sense. If we’re known for life-changing drugs, why can’t we be known for life-changing, technology-driven solutions? The definition of “medical device” is growing and morphing, and digital is an inextricable part of it.

High science saves lives, but high tech can bring that to the people who need it. HCPs are known to be early adopters of tech, and patients, too, expect that the brands they use will have at least as much tech-savvy as they possess. A pharma company is only as good as the lives they improve — whether with a pill, a topical, an app or a wearable.

How can we change the pharma industry’s tech attitude? Perhaps if we look at the ways that pharma has embraced science, some of these can be applied to technology and help it become as much a part of our fabric as science is.

1. Reward researchers.
While much early-stage research is publicly funded by governments and academia (source), pharma is also on hand with its own work and awards. But you don’t see pharma pay as much attention to app developers or big data experts. Could a few strategic endowments start to change this and, as a result, attract much-needed talent?

2. Support academia and students.
In that same vein, companies often honor outstanding students and academics. It’s partly self-interest — that work may create the next blockbuster — but also public-spirited. With Sanofi’s Innovation Challenge a notable exception, we’ve seen few pharmas acknowledge or encourage digital innovation. Can that be around the corner?

3. Corporate mission focus.
It’s hard to find a pharma mission statement that doesn’t talk about improving lives through the discovery of new medications. When will we see one that also specifically mentions creating new technology to help patients live better?

4. Support developing countries.
Extensive philanthropic projects provide life-saving drugs around the world. But developing nations have seen extremely rapid adoption of mobile technologies. Can we introduce digital connections and resources to save and improve lives where they’re most needed?

5. Sponsor documentaries.
Public relations efforts can be met with skepticism, but done right, they can also help educate wide audiences on what important work has been done, is being done, and needs to be done. Wouldn’t a documentary telling the story of a pharmaceutical company and a tech company, collaborating to help patients, be interesting enough to engage the public and perhaps inspire copycat efforts?

6. Wooing the best minds to industry.
Pharma’s been drawing academics for generations. George Merck made his headquarters resemble a university specifically to help him convince the smartest minds to leave their ivory towers and work for him (source). What can pharma do today to attract brilliant tech innovators?

7. Assume that leaders can be found in pharma.
Right now, if you’re looking for scientific developments, you can check the pipeline pages of major pharmaceutical companies’ websites. But if you want to know which health apps are best? You probably check the App Store leaderboard. Can pharma start to showcase good work and begin to change this assumption?

8. Use financial might to make amazing things happen.
It’s a global industry worth $300 billion a year (source). Yes, companies are retrenching and tightening budgets, but there’s still a great power there to lobby, to support, to make noise. How can pharma use its considerable voice to strengthen the cause of digital health?

9. Change the industry image.
“Pharma” may conjure up mental images of sales reps, but it also brings to mind lab-coated scientists. From our websites to our sales collateral, we reinforce this image every day. Is it time to bring our developers and coders front and center?

10. Catch the spirit of the age.
Pharmaceutical companies date back to the late 17th century (source), to the birth of Western medicine as we know it. In each century, they’ve been part of the zeitgeist, from the Industrial Revolution to groundbreaking developments. In the 21st century, it’s looking like digital is supreme, and we’ve still got 85 years left in it. How can pharma imbue itself with this century’s spirit?

These ten ways the industry focused on science were to the benefit of both the industry and scientific pursuits overall. If we could embrace life on the cutting edge of technology as thoroughly, who knows where pharma could go?