How pharma is tackling digital health

Gilles Toulemonde, Inova CEO

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Digital health is on the rise. Just last year $7.9 billion dollars were invested in 585 digital health companies. It’s clearly the way forward, offering better patient outcomes, lower costs and broader consumer access to care. Pharmaceutical companies are eager to join the transformation, recognizing that digital health impacts all aspects of their businesses, from discovery to clinical development to commercialization. The opportunities to get involved are many – there are thousands of digital startups with innovative solutions. Pharma just needs to figure out which ones it can collaborate with and how.

That’s easier said than done, however. It’s a big change from partnering for molecules. Digital health has different codes and ways of doing business. Pharma must get multiple departments spread across the globe all aligned and efficiently communicating about their partnering activities. Adding to the pressure, the clock is ticking, if pharma doesn’t make the transition now, they’ll likely lose out - hospitals, medical technology companies, health insurers, digital start-ups and innovative tech companies like Google, Apple and Amazon are all looking at how to dive into digital health.

As CEO of Inova Software, the most popular enterprise partnering software among biopharma, and as an investor and board member of a mHealth company dedicated to mental illness,, I look at this digital transformation from both sides of the coin. To get an idea of the opportunities open to pharma, I’ve gathered some examples of pharma companies and their innovative, digital health partnerships.

Reducing cost and improving clinical trial efficiency

One important opportunity offered by digital health is improving clinical trial efficiency. Developing a new drug is expensive: by some estimates it costs well over $2 billion. This cost must be reduced to meet the needs of future drug development. One possibility is to move into a “digital enabled clinical trial system”. For instance, GSK has been working with McLaren, a company that builds racecars and put sensors on Formula 1 racecar drivers during races. Using McLaren’s technology, GSK is running a clinical trial that puts sensors on children in India. Their goal is to develop technology that monitors patients in real-time, instead of occasional check-ups, which can cause unreliable trial results.

Becoming more patient-centric

Other pharma companies are partnering with digital health companies to improve patient-centricity. Patient-centricity is all about understanding the patient’s real world and looking for ways to improve it. For a patient-centric strategy to succeed, the predictive factors of poor health-related quality of life (HRQoL) must be identified. This is a big change from “science-based only” strategies. Companies like UCB have pioneered this approach. Partnering with, an online patient community, UCB launched an epilepsy community in 2010. This online community allows patients with epilepsy to record, monitor, and share demographic, disease and treatment characteristics. This information provides valuable insights into how patients perceive and understand epilepsy. From this real-world patient data, UCB learned that to improve a patient’s quality of life, a treatment must not only reduce seizures, but also improve memory and concentration problems. A better understanding of life with epilepsy helps UCB design new treatments, improve health outcomes and, eventually, grow one of its largest markets.

Facilitating access to care and medication

Another area in which pharma can get involved in digital technologies is by improving access to treatment. The Novartis Malaria Initiative includes the SMS for Life program. The SMS for Life approach uses SMS technology to record antimalarial stock levels at point-of-care. This information is collated in a central database and used to improve countrywide stock availability. It has been such a success that Novartis launched SMS for life 2.0 in partnership with the Kaduna State Ministry of Health and Vodacom.

Upgrading an existing, off-patent drugs

Upgrading off-patent drugs with digital health technology could be hugely beneficial for pharma and patients alike. If these upgraded drugs provide better health outcomes, pharma will be able to request new patents and renegotiate reimbursement.
For example, Otsuka has partnered with Proteus Digital Health, to upgrade its off-patent Abilify, which is prescribed to patients with depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. Patients suffering from severe mental illnesses struggle with adhering to their medication regimen. Otsuka and Proteus developed an upgraded drug with an ingestible sensor embedded in drug’s tablet. Combined with a second sensor in an adhesive patch, it measures medication-taking patterns and physiological responses, sending the data (with the patient's permission) to the patient's care provider, as well as displaying it on the patient's smartphone. Although the FDA rejected the Otsuka-Proteus pill because they needed additional proof of its effectiveness, it is a promising example of what a digitally upgraded pill will be able to do.

Developing new fully digital treatment

Can digital treatment simply replace drugs in some areas? It’s a very futurist digital option for pharma, but not total science fiction. While it would be foolish to predict that an app can one day cure cancer, in some therapeutic areas it’s making great progress. For instance, Tilak Healthcare, co-founded by iBionext in 2016, is currently developing a disruptive technological platform of video games prescribed by healthcare professionals to target age-related macular degeneration. The video games could be used to not only diagnose macular degeneration but also to slow down its progression just like a drug would do. Pharma should soon consider in-licensing technology such as this, just like they have in-licensed drugs from biotechs over the past 20 years.

Finding the right partners for the digital health transformation

As we see from the previous examples, digital health technologies have incredible potential. These examples also illustrate the diversity of partnerships that pharma will have to build if they want to lead this digital transformation. From an organizational standpoint, it is no small challenge. In the early 2000s, pharma accelerated in-licensing activities to fill their pipelines and reduce impact of the upcoming patent cliff. This required them to quickly scale up their business development team and funding.

In the context of digital transformation, however, scaling up the digital office might be necessary but won’t do the job by itself. The digital transformation takes place everywhere and all departments will be involved, including discovery, clinical development, marketing and BD. Biopharma companies must find a way to accelerate and coordinate their partnering activities with companies in the digital health space. Some companies like Servier are creating small subsidiaries, which are nimble enough to quickly decide which partnerships to pursue. For others, the key is to improve coordination between departments and their experts. Whatever strategy is pursued, pharma must ensure that they speak to external partners with “one voice”. They must move quickly and convince potential partners that they’re the best choice. That takes a dedicated, coordinated effort.