Digital innovation and collaboration with start-ups

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  • All patients are different and there’s no single, one-size-fits-all solution that will be right for all of them
  • Patient adherence continues to be an ongoing challenge for both healthcare systems and pharma – technology may hold the key to unlocking this challenge
  • Innovation = invention + adoption. Start-ups are providing inventions so big corporates can support the adoption to drive healthcare innovation

Pfizer’s head of digital in international developed markets John Gordon on partnerships and how the biggest of big pharma firms works with emerging tech companies.

After training as a pharmacist in the UK and working in the NHS, John has spent the last 11 years at Pfizer. Following early roles in healthcare strategy and regional brand management he quickly specialised in digital and is currently head of digital for the international developed markets region, covering markets from Europe to Asia.

Many of the countries within this region struggle with similar healthcare challenges. In order to maximise Pfizer’s impact on patient health they look for digital solutions that can be scaled across multiple markets.

As head of digital, John’s role covers everything from how Pfizer uses digital technology to communicate with healthcare professionals and patients, through to the types of digital technology that support patients in getting better outcomes, such as wearables, augmented reality and artificial intelligence. Consequently, he’s exceptionally well-placed to consider how big pharma firms work with start-ups and the healthcare potential of the technology.

Why does your company want to work with the digital sector?

Pfizer recognises the impact that digital technology is going to have on the way healthcare is provided across the world. To ensure that we can continue to deliver on our commitment to patients who rely on us, we are seeking innovations from the digital health ecosystem that complement our medicines and drive the best possible outcomes for patients throughout their journey.

How can digital health complement your work in developing traditional medicines?

There are many opportunities along the patient journey for digital technology. For example, we use social media to drive disease awareness and help patients understand where to get healthcare professional support.

We collaborate with technology start-ups to improve diagnoses, such as helping to improve the speed at which patients can be diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia using simpler mobile technology.

Once the patient has a diagnosis and is prescribed a treatment, we can offer different digital interventions to support improved medicines adherence and ongoing self-management.

Where can digital make the biggest difference to healthcare?

In the near-term there is a huge problem with patients remembering or feeling motivated to take medicines that have been prescribed for them. The literature suggests that adherence is a global challenge, so we are exploring how technology can improve adherence for different types of patients.

The types of technology we are exploring include basic patient education materials in multiple formats to appeal to the different ways people like to consume information. Increasingly, we are exploring things like augmented and virtual reality as a way to provide a more immersive educational experience to patients. In addition, as things like chatbots become more widely used across other industries, we are exploring how this could apply to healthcare.

Ultimately, the pharmaceutical industry has always suffered from this challenge of sub-optimal adherence. What has changed in the last 10 years is mobile technology. Now patients have a powerful computer in their hand, giving us a better opportunity to provide interventions for patients to help them get the best from their medicines.

Don’t chronic disease patients already have enough technology, enough apps?

All patients are different. Patients’ adherence to their treatment varies for different reasons and changes over time. If they simply forget, a reminder might help them. Some patients need more educational materials about the necessity of taking their medicine and want to address any concerns they may have, like side effects.

There is no single solution that fits all patients all the time – we look at the types of patients suffering from a particular condition, break them down into different segments to understand what the challenges are for that segment and then explore solutions to address those challenges.

What mobile does is give us an opportunity to provide different interventions, ranging from a simple text message reminder to video content informing them about their condition.

How does Pfizer co-operate with start-ups?

We have been experimenting with our relationship with start-ups for several years. In the last 12 months, we have launched a more formal programme, called the Healthcare Hub programme, which looks to identify, interact and support start-ups who have solutions for our patients’ most challenging problems, through a network of country-based hubs.

We started the hub programme in Berlin some time ago, because there was a huge amount of start-up activity in Berlin. The German team began by running some networking evenings with start-up companies, giving the start-ups an opportunity to talk to a big corporate and offering us the opportunity to talk to entrepreneurs about the changing world of healthcare.

That kicked off other activities, like mentoring start-ups in subject areas such as clinical trial design, market access, marketing and communications. There seemed to be an opportunity to roll out this collaboration to other countries in the region, which is where the Healthcare Hub programme was born.

We do not call ourselves an accelerator – every relationship we build with a start-up is bespoke and aimed at matching Pfizer skills and capabilities against the challenges each start-up is facing to help them be successful with the ultimate aim of benefiting patients.

The premise is that if innovation is a combination of invention and adoption there is plenty of invention available across the world, but many small companies struggle to get their ideas adopted. Where big corporates such as us can help is driving adoption and scaling these solutions to ensure more patients can benefit.

Closer collaboration with entrepreneurs and the involvement of our colleagues from across the business internally in these projects is helping to drive a stronger culture of innovation within our organisation, which is important if we are going to be successful in this rapidly-changing world.

There’s a lot of interest in the start-up world, what’s Pfizer’s particular focus?

Our focus at country level is to look right across the patient journey for local solutions that can support patients with improvements in disease awareness, diagnosis or self-management of their condition across a wide range of therapy areas. We also run more specific international programmes looking to identify solutions for more defined patient challenges in specific disease areas which if proven successful can be scaled across multiple countries.

It’s always interesting when large companies try to work with small companies. How do massive companies balance it?

It’s definitely a challenge, but both the start-ups and the big corporates are usually eager to solve it together.

Last year we formed a partnership with a Danish company called Cortrium – they build mobile ECG monitors, which can help detect arrhythmia. A small part of our customer facing team will drive awareness of the Cortrium device among the stakeholders that are important to Cortrium, because we have aligned objectives – our joint stakeholders are cardiologists. We want cardiologists to identify patients suffering from arrhythmia faster and more efficiently and Cortrium has the solution.

We have worked through some of the challenges that any big corporate has when working with a small start-up, but we have ended up with a solution that is a really exciting partnership, where the start-up company sees a true benefit coming from a large company.

It is a true partnership that does not include any equity in the company. It brings benefits to both sides in the collaboration and the patient wins eventually. It is the first of several collaborations we have ongoing in our Healthcare Hubs across the world.

How do the Healthcare Hubs work?

They have organised events, such as networking evenings on specific subject areas where start-ups can come and listen to speakers talk about subjects of interest to them and brainstorm ideas with our internal colleagues afterwards – informal networking.

We have more formal outreach strategies too, seeking submissions to solve key challenges that we face right now. We then assess the applications and offer the best ones a working relationship with Pfizer, providing mentoring by various colleagues in the business and then, if required, access to our network.

In some cases, we have offered a small financial funding, but start-ups tell us that money is very low down their list of priorities when looking at programmes like this – it is more about the ability to network with a big corporate and gain experience.

About the interviewee

As the Head of Digital for Pfizer’s International Developed Markets region, John is responsible for the digital transformation of the Internal Medicine business across 57 markets from Europe to developed Asia.  Over the past 2 years John has been involved in a number of patient facing technology initiatives such as driving better education for patients through virtual reality experiences to launching a wearable device to support patients suffering with chronic pain to track and manage their pain & anxiety symptoms over time.  One of his top priorities recently has focused on building a regional programme to engage the digital health start-up community with the aim of identifying cutting edge digital solutions to drive better outcomes from Pfizer medicines.

About the author

Tarmo Virki is the co-founder of European start-up magazine CoFounder.

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