Priscilla Beal, global head of digital health engagement for Bayer, recently joined Alison Kanski and Marc Iskowitz on the MM&M Podcast to speak about tie-ups between drugmakers and health-tech startups. She also gave a preview of the keynote she’s delivering on the future of partnering at MM&M’s May 8 conference. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Marc Iskowitz: You head up Bayer’s US Healthcare Innovation team, which is known as G4A, and that includes running the open innovation engine. Unpack that a bit.
Priscilla Beal: G4A has been around since 2013. It started as a hallway conversation with some pharma executives about building an app and giving a grant, hence Grants4Apps which is now G4A. And over the years, we’ve really grown from being a somewhat altruistic exercise trying to dive into the startup world, understand what it is that startups are really awesome at doing from a niche perspective versus what Bayer is really doing or has been doing for 185 years innovating on the molecule.
We have different groups within G4A. One of them is the partnership program that opens this year in 2019 on April 1st and another is our venture design group. And then we have other folks who do the serious strategy conversations with the divisions to identify where business opportunities are within pharma and consumer health, specifically where emerging trends and consumer need meet. Because the ultimate goal of all of G4A is to identify new financial opportunities, new business models and new businesses at the intersection of human need and these emerging trends.
My role with engagement, along with another colleague of mine, is really to give visibility and a voice to the efforts that we do on behalf of Bayer.
Iskowitz: And you’ve also kindly agreed to give the keynote talk at the upcoming MM&M Transforming Healthcare conference in May, and we’ll get into that a little bit later. You also work with Saskia Steinacker, Bayer’s chief digital officer.
Beal: Yes, she’s one of the best advocates, not only from her subject matter expertise but also—speaking as a woman in technology myself and a woman in the digital space—it’s really fantastic to have people like Saskia out there representing Bayer and our efforts to change the health experience and drive digital transformation in a large organization. Also, to see a woman in that role is very inspiring.
See also: Meet pharma’s digital chiefs
Alison Kanski: You have a very interesting background yourself, Priscilla. Could you talk a little bit about that, especially your experience working at NASA, and how that led you to the position you’re in now?
Beal: I actually grew up in the art world—I’m the art world’s equivalent of an Army brat. I now live in Pittsburgh with my husband, which is the 13th city I’ve lived in. The first seven or eight cities were part of that art world experience where we moved around as my father got different jobs at different museums. I did my undergrad in history and then went back and got my graduate degree in art history. I worked for the Detroit Institute of Arts, then moved to DC because you can’t throw a rock or a stick without hitting a museum in that city.
Meantime, a temp agency I was working with actually placed me as an admin at NASA. I would get my work done and then walk around and talk to these literal rocket scientists all day. It was one of the coolest jobs ever. One day during one of these conversations, I was sitting in on some mission status meetings. Some of the missions I sat in on 15 years ago are now the ones that we’re seeing on the news!
They were actually managing rocket ship status on an Excel spreadsheet, changing cell colors from red to yellow to green. Even though I really knew nothing about IT, other than the fact that the internet worked, I was like, “There has to be a way to automate this.” So, I went to my friend who was in IT, and we figured out a proposal to automate this and the next thing I knew I was in charge of an IT project. I’ve been in IT ever since.
We want to create new revenue streams based on behavioral science, and we want to do that startup-style, rather than via the glacially-paced pharma which many startups experience.
Iskowitz: How did you get into pharma?
Beal: I went from outer space to the marketing space. I worked in digital strategy and digital marketing for agencies for eight or nine years. I was working 14- or 16-hour days and had just had my third child. I decided that it was exhausting enough being a mother, let alone adding the extra 16 hours, so I decided to join the “dark side,” which is what agencies call the client world. There was an opportunity to join Bayer, and I really believed in the mission at the time—Science For A Better Life—and I’ve been there now for just over four years.
Iskowitz: And you’re primarily interfacing with startups now?
Beal: Absolutely. I would say right now that’s 80-90% of what I do, so everything from conferences to external engagements. I’m responsible for all of the marketing communications that G4A does to the external world and dealing with media relations, press and PR, as well as working with the divisions and with subject matter experts in the field. People that are part of the “G4A Family” whom we bring in to learn about and to help contribute to topics like AI, machine learning, digital therapeutics and digital contraception.
Iskowitz: What are the priorities Bayer looks for when deciding what startups to back?
Beal: It really depends on the need. Bayer’s pharma and consumer health divisions have future-facing strategies, such as vision 2022, where they want to implement products that are beyond the pill—those that are not only in support of existing pills, potions, tonics and lotions but digital devices, solutions and experiences that can be given to patients to, say, help alleviate pain.
We’re trying to help patients through digital health (to advance the vision, G4A is running a pitch competition to spur self-care innovation partnerships). How can we offer them solutions and experiences that will help them take better care of themselves? How can we leverage emerging trends and technology to help our pharma and consumer divisions accomplish those goals?
Iskowitz: Pharma hasn’t traditionally been thought of as the first port of call for the startup community. How has that changed? How do you see pharma becoming a better partner, and why?
Beal: I love that question. Bayer is an excellent partner because, as we said at the onset, 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 expert at it all the time. There are other people out there that are better at it. 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’s suffered or they themselves have suffered from an ailment or some kind of condition or injury.
There’s no better expert than those individuals. They have this passion project that then becomes a successful company, a passion that we share for the science. If they have it for their product and Bayer has it for the science, but they’ve already gotten it to a place where we can engage with them and roll it into our process, then it’s mutually beneficial. We bring them in, help them with the use cases, and give them those swaths of data that they might use to confirm that their algorithm works at scale.
Iskowitz: Speaking of which, how do startups benefit from working with Bayer?
Beal: We can give them the funding to succeed, and a safe space to try and implement the vision that prompted them to launch a startup in the first place. We also have the ability to bring in mentors from across the organization—legal, medical, regulatory. We tap into all of that internal expertise to help that company become more successful with us, and in many cases to become successful after they leave the G4A program. One of my favorite things about this job is that little altruistic twist. We love it when Bayer invests or continues the project, but we also just love to see the startups that come through our program find success, whether it’s with us or, dare I say, a competitor. I’ll probably get in trouble for that one!
Iskowitz: Well, that brings up a good point. If you find out a startup is better served, say, by one of the other pharma-based external innovation engines or by an accelerator, do you make that recommendation?
Beal: I wouldn’t say that we make it overtly. It really just depends on the startup and the relationship we have with them. There are things that we do really well. We co-create these challenge statements. G4A is very tied into the development of the digital strategy that Bayer’s pharma and consumer divisions are both developing, and challenge statements stem from workshops that we participate in with those divisions. It’s a very collaborative process from beginning to end, and it’s ongoing, not just when the program is live. Plus, we offer the mentoring and other benefits.
There are other pharma-based external innovation programs that offer lots of cash. Sometimes, especially when you’re a more mature company, you don’t need help with your business plan, you don’t need help with your use-case development, and in many cases you don’t want your company to be impacted by the company with whom you’re partnering. In that case, getting a $10-million check is pretty sweet.
Iskowitz: In terms of data, do you allow startups to dip into a data “sandbox” of some sort?
Beal: That’s one of the things I would love to see Bayer do, in an anonymized and fully compliant way, so that startups can test and learn, and improve their algorithms. Anything that we can do to help them on their life-saving journey would be amazing. On several occasions we have given startups access to huge clinical trials databases.
Kanski: So, we’ve mentioned a few times that you’re going to be at our conference giving a talk on May 8 on the future of partnering. Give us a preview.
Beal: This data lake example is a really good segue to what I’m going to talk about—that which I hope we as an organization and an industry can do in the future to promote partnering. What’s the partnering promised land? I’ll be asking the community just as many questions as I’m answering. What are the questions that we’re trying to solve? The future of partnering is not just about the ability to more effectively partner with startups or for them to engage VCs or life science organizations. It’s also about making sure that as a community we adopt that mindshift toward asking the right questions. Not to reduce technology to an either/or proposition of making a profit or helping people get better, but to go to the root of the need and ask, What is the patient condition? What is the consumer need? What’s the opportunity here to help make somebody’s life better and change their experience of health?
Iskowitz: For those also seeking the partnering promised land, what should be the desired end result of these partnering efforts?
Beal: First, we want to create new revenue streams based on behavioral science. And we want to do that startup-style, rather than via the traditional glacially-paced pharma which many startups experience. Second, when many people think of Bayer they think of their grandfather’s aspirin company. But we really are this organization that’s doing things like partnering with Casebia Therapeutics to make advances with the Cas9 gene, and trying to cure blindness and cancer. We’re trying to make sure that more of the world knows about that so that they come to us and that we can make these effective partnerships.
Iskowitz: Tell us about some of the interesting startups in your ecosystem.
Beal: Budapest startup Turbine, which algorithmically finds combination cancer treatments, was part of our cohort in 2016. After going through the cohort with us, they have realized some great investment opportunities in using AI for clinical trials. And Toronto-based, AI-powered drug design startup Cyclica is in the process of trying to create a data lake in the clinical trials space. Longboat is also in that space. There are a whole swath of success stories on G4A.health—shameless plug!
Iskowitz: Check that out, everybody. I would agree with you that many people associate pharma with a glacial pace of innovation. It takes eight, nine years to take a molecule or biologic from bench to bedside, and that’s…
Beal: …that’s the fast version, yes.
Iskowitz: Right. People don’t necessarily associate pharma with speed. This topic came up earlier this year at South By Southwest. It can cause friction with startups, which in general expect a tighter turnaround. What is your timetable to complete deals with startups?
Beal: The short answer is months. The longer answer is that we have a “sprint” period, followed by a two-track signing period. The growth track is a three-month track for early stage startups that still need some of the things I mentioned earlier: co-working space, mentoring, pitch coaching, help co-creating their use case. There’s also a five-month advanced track for later-stage companies, those with a product on or at least close to market. This is much more of a, “Hey, let’s start a project on day one and get to a prototype or proof-of-concept and see where we can go.” After that it becomes, “What are the additional milestones and what additional funding would a pharma or consumer be willing to contribute to either acquire equity, continue a project or start another project?” There’s a lot of different ways that we co-distribute or co-commercialize.
Iskowitz: Let’s move to the speed round. Who are your health tech or innovation role models?
Beal: It’s going to sound like such a brown-nosing answer, but I would say the head of G4A, Eugene Borukhovich, who actually is like in the top four among digital health gurus followed on Twitter. He inspires me every day. This also going to sound cheesy, but the people who inspire me the most are these startups that come up with an idea and create a company out of absolutely nothing, and end up being able to help save the cancer patient from, say, years of pain or help speed up a trial. I get up every day because I really love helping enable those relationships, and that’s actually really where I draw a lot of my inspiration from.
Iskowitz: You’re lucky to be working in that environment.
Beal: I am.
Iskowitz: Second question: Which of your competitors do you think is doing the best, coolest, most interesting work?
Beal: None of them. No, I’m just kidding.
Iskowitz: At least you’re being honest.
Beal: I know. JLABS is doing some really cool stuff. That said, I actually think a lot of the really neat innovations, especially in the digital health space—and where we’re going to find our competition—is more in academia right now than in the larger life science organizations. The thing that I am most excited, and most scared about, is the Airbnb version of the digital health superstar that kind of comes out of nowhere in a completely unrelated field and just knocks it out of the park.
Iskowitz: The one that really harnesses the behavioral insights and the right kind of user experience to really capture the attention of consumers.
Iskowitz: But that’s why you want to be out there partnering.
Beal: Yes, very much so.
Iskowitz: Well, this has been really a lot of fun and really fascinating. Thank you for joining us.
Beal: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Iskowitz: And thanks, everybody out there. We’ll catch you next time.
Kanski: Thanks everyone, bye.
MM&M Transforming Healthcare, which will include Priscilla Beal’s keynote, is coming up on May 8th in New York City. The Transformers and Catalysts Awards reception—honoring the Top 40 Healthcare Transformers and Top 10 Innovation Catalysts of 2019—will take place the evening of May 7. Buy your tickets for the conference here and the awards reception here.