After many years of guarding their inner workings as if they were state secrets, pharma companies have slowly opened their doors — and their minds — to outside organizations.
The industry has done this most effectively via in-house startup incubators such as Bayer’s G4A program, which began in 2013 in Bayer’s Berlin headquarters and was launched in the U.S. in 2017. According to Priscilla Beal, who headed up marketing and communications for the unit, G4A had its roots in a “hallway conversation” about giving out grants and building apps.
“Over the years, it has grown from being a somewhat altruistic exercise — trying to dive into the startup world and understand what startups are awesome at doing from a niche perspective — versus what Bayer has been doing for 185 years, which is innovating on the molecule,” Beal explains.
Beal, who joined Bayer in 2015 and previously served as its U.S. head of digital innovation, was promoted in February to global head of digital health ecosystem and engagement. Over the course of her tenure with the company, she has worked to identify partnership- and investment-worthy health startups. Her role has ballooned to include marketing, communications, media relations and PR for G4A as well as liaising with subject matter experts in the field.
Beal began her career in the art world, working at museums. After spending some time in a temp role as a NASA project manager, she switched to the IT and marketing industries.
“I went from outer space to the marketing space,” she jokes.
Even as a relative newcomer to the world of pharma, Beal is helping usher the historically glacially placed industry into fast-moving areas such as voice tech, data analysis and digital health. Considered one of the more progressive companies in and around health-tech, Bayer has partnered with startups that have attempted to disrupt a range of therapeutic categories, among them oncology, ophthalmology, radiology and women’s health.
Beal believes Bayer’s work can help spur change in pharma’s interactions with the tech industry and notes that G4A has several different paths for startups. They include a partnership program, a venture design group and a strategy division. The latter is tailored to helping startups identify business opportunities and emerging trends across the health and consumer categories.
Of course, Bayer isn’t the only organization following this path. Others with highly touted startup incubators and partnership programs include Johnson & Johnson (JLABS) and AstraZeneca (AstraZeneca Incubator).
Beal understands the skepticism with which health-tech startups eye pharma, but believes Bayer has learned how to counter it. “We realize we’re really good at a lot of things. Spending time on niche technologies and niche applications of those technologies is something that we can do and that we have been doing, but we aren’t experts at it all the time,” she says.
At the same time, Beal notes the G4A team’s willingness to defer to entrepreneurs. “We’re looking to startups whose leaders very often have personal ties to the solution they’ve come up with, either because they have a family member who has suffered or because they themselves have suffered from some kind of condition. There’s no better expert than those individuals,” she adds.