5 of healthcare's hardest nuts to crack


The problem? Picking up the pace

If startups are speedboats, big businesses are cruise ships. This is how Kent Bradley, founder of BTN Advisors, describes the players in healthcare innovation.

The speedboat is agile and entrepreneurial, but can only fit so many people and has only so much gas. On the other hand, the cruise ship boasts deep resources and competencies, yet often requires extensive compliance and oversight. They both can get to the destination, but at different speeds.

But don't confuse slow with risk averse, notes Judy Sewards, VP, head of digital strategy and data innovation at Pfizer. “Skeptics like to say that pharma is not innovative, that it is an old and clunky industry. However, I would say we are one of the most innovative industries, and one that has driven continuous breakthroughs in health,” she explains.

See also: What 10 innovation teams look like

When the estimated cost of getting a new drug approved is pegged at $2.6 billion, it is hard to argue that pharma does not take risk. However, the high stakes tend to happen on the R&D side of the operation where, Sewards says, “We know how to explore ambitious possibilities when looking at a disease, design studies to learn how a potential medicine might best meet unmet patient needs, and have a systematic framework to bring that medicine to the patients who need them.”

So what happens when the risk is not in a molecule, but in a device, an app, or machine learning as part of digital transformation? Typically these activities happen within an innovation team on the commercial operations side of the organization, which is notorious for reducing risk, and rightly so. Once a drug has crossed the approval chasm, a lot more is on the line.

This is precisely where things slow down for the modern pharmaceutical. But Sewards sees a path forward.

“By borrowing the principles from our scientific model of focus, iterative experimentation, which requires curiosity and patience, and planning for success and applying it to digital innovation, pharma has the opportunity to be a leader in shaping healthcare transformation,” she explains.

See also: The FDA, Astellas, and Accenture use innovation competitions to help address business challenges

However, Sewards cautions, don't feel like you have to go it alone. “Today, we are not a technology company, we are a medicines company,” she notes.

“Therefore, part of our success depends on our ability to partner effectively with those companies and institutions that are pioneering new digital and data solutions and exploring together what these solutions might enable in the future,” she continues.

In this situation, the cruise ship opts to engage with a few speedboats. “By working together on behalf of patients, we can marry domain and functional expertise to more rapidly find meaningful solutions and also pull it through into action,” Sewards adds.

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