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Life Sciences Can Adapt From 'Digital Natives'(Source:Alamy)

"Digital natives", adept at knowing and engaging customers, are reshaping healthcare, and life sciences firms can adapt on several fronts from these disruptors. But they will also need to be thinking more like software companies, according to a senior biopharma expert and tech advisor.

Addressing the Indegene Digital Summit, Amgen, Inc.’s former chief information officer (CIO), Diana McKenzie, referred to a group of such digital natives, among others, that are impacting the healthcare ecosystem and how such advancements are driving life sciences towards an inflection point.

The promise of personalized medicine has “never been more possible than it is today”given all the changes that are happening in the technology space, including the introduction of technology companies in healthcare, she indicated.

“There are all kinds of lessons we can learn from these disruptors; we can partner with these disruptors,” McKenzie proposed in a keynote presentation at the virtual event.

Digital native companies include now giant organizations like Facebook, Amazon and Google that were born in the digital age.

McKenzie, who is also a former CIO of Workday, highlighted within a range of examples Facebook’s release of its Oculus (virtual reality platform) product to medical teaching institutions and Amazon Care’s on-demand healthcare service, which enables employees to connect with medical professionals via chat or video conference and eliminates long wait and travel times to get appropriate medical attention.

In March, the US e-commerce giant said that beginning this summer, Amazon Care will expand its virtual care to companies and Amazon employees in all 50 states across the US.

Tech giant Apple, meanwhile, has improved the health metrics that can be captured via its Apple Watch and made it possible for individuals to share that content with their caregivers, she noted.

Google Dermatology Tool Pilot

Other advances that have caught the industry veteran and tech advisor’s attention included Google’s AI-powered dermatology assist tool pilot, said to be a culmination of three-plus years of machine learning research and product development.

Each year, there are almost 10 billion Google searches related to skin, nail and hair issues and while an estimated two billion people globally suffer from dermatological conditions, with a limited number of specialists or affordability issues many tend to see a general practitioner (GP).

While GPs often “get it right” to a significant extent, McKenzie explained that what Google hopes to do is “take the pilot, learn from it, apply it and make it a companion for GPs,” so that when a patient comes to them with a skin condition, it doesn't replace the GPs experience but augments this and makes it easier for the physician, especially if it turns out that the patient has some sort of skin cancer “to get on top of it and help that patient heal faster.”

Digital natives have already disrupted multiple sectors including travel, media, music and photography, and the increasingly blurring lines between pharma and technology have seen players from the two sectors tango together in a range of areas across healthcare.

For instance in June, Novartis AG joined forces with Hewlett Packard Enterprise to accelerate the use of data and digital technologies within its wider efforts to reimagine global health and improve access to healthcare and medicines. Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH firmed up a deal this January with Google Quantum AI, focusing on researching and implementing “cutting-edge use cases” for quantum computing in pharmaceutical R&D, specifically including molecular dynamics simulations.

In 2019, French firm Sanofi announced a collaboration with Google to establish a new virtual innovation lab aimed at transforming how future medicines and health services are delivered by tapping into the power of emerging data technologies.

Thinking Like Software Companies

McKenzie, who serves on the boards of MetLife, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Change Healthcare, GenapSys, and Paradox, also referred to how, over the last 10-15 years, technology had entered a number of industries and reshaped/disrupted them completely.

Then, she noted, the pandemic exposed gaps in the end-to-end ability to treat patients from start to finish, bringing with it increasing numbers of emerging and larger, more established, technology companies in the healthcare space.

“So much so that in the second quarter of 2021, close to $32bn alone was invested by VCs [venture capital firms] in the space. There's tremendous opportunity in this market space.”

The cost burden also weighs on payers, risk-bearing providers, employers and consumers and creates opportunities for industry outsiders to establish healthcare vertical offerings, McKenzie's presentation noted.

She went on to recount her days at Amgen, where the US company worked closely with Vijay Gurbaxani, the founding director of the Center for Digital Transformation at the University of California, Irvine, who way back in 2010-12 was writing about the fact that “every company would become a software company."

"The pandemic exposed gaps in the end-to-end ability to treat patients from start to finish, bringing with it increasing numbers of emerging and larger, more established, technology companies in the healthcare space." - Ex-Amgen CIO Diana McKenzie

“Well, we are indeed at that point today. And in order for us to compete in this [life sciences] industry, with all the technology companies that are entering the space, we all have to be thinking like software companies,” McKenzie declared at the Indegene summit.

Operating In Life Sciences Vs Software

The executive, who is also a special advisor at Brighton Park Capital and functions as a technology advisor for, and investor in, a number of healthcare technology and brain-health focused startups, also outlined a string of similarities and differences between operating in a software firm versus a life sciences company, including the innovation-focused talent and culture and how product development is a “team sport.”

McKenzie explained that within life sciences, “everything is about innovation”; science and medicine, treating the patient, curing patients are all based on the use of the scientific method, which is “all about experimentation.”

Similarly, within a technology company, the development of a “minimally viable” product, that very first instantiation of a product, in reality is nothing more than an experiment, she observed.

“They [both sectors] follow a very similar process, which is to develop a hypothesis, or they have a question, design/execute an experiment, evaluate the results they learn and incorporate that learning to the next iteration.”

The difference between the two, however, is the form of the iterations in life sciences, which in large part are long duration because of the nature of the business, while those within technology or software are much faster.

McKenzie underscored that the “culture of the company is everything” and in this, every company is going to need to be a software company.

The demand for talent that can help embrace the software mindset within life sciences is “off the charts. And there simply isn't enough talent out there to meet the needs across all the companies in all the industries that are trying to become software companies,” she stressed.

It is therefore vital to create a culture where learning and innovation are rewarded and incentivized and where failure that results in learning, or that makes the product better, is rewarded and incentivized as well.

“I think that's where these two industries share a similar culture. The pace is clearly an area where there's an opportunity for life sciences to catch up. But there are great examples already out there, where life sciences is making a movement in this direction.”

Product Development Is A Team Sport

In terms of product development, typically in life sciences the therapeutic team, or the product strategy team, have a certain number of people involved that were picked specifically because of their expertise. Collectively, the cross-functional nature of the domains they brought together is what makes the product commercialization vision a reality.

“They brought their functional expertise together, they worked together as a team, they challenged each other, they disagreed, they figured out how to agree and figured out how to move forward,” McKenzie noted.

In most aspects, this process is no different to how product teams work within a software company, though the titles may vary. The individuals that come together bring their different domains of expertise and “they hash through what the product needs to look like, what the features need to look like, what the sprint schedule will look like.” The pace in life sciences again entails a longer time duration.

Besides, in the software sector, the product team is “80% of where individuals spend their time,” while in life sciences product team members sometimes spend as much time back in their functions as they did on the product team together.

McKenzie believes that over time, as life sciences adopts more of digital therapeutics, companion application components and “thinks a bit more about the digital element of how they reach patients,” it will likely start to see more of the product development elements of the software company come into product teams.

Earlier this year, an IQVIA report on digital health trends said that health-related mobile apps available to consumers on top app stores worldwide exceeded 350,000, with more than 90,000 digital health apps added in 2020 — an average of more than 250 per day.

It noted that while the majority of mobile health apps were for general wellness, across a sample of high-quality apps, the number of apps for health condition management were on the up, with many being developed for narrower disease segments. Mental health, diabetes and cardiovascular disease-related apps now account for almost half of disease-specific apps, the report added.

Pharma has also been investing in digital therapeutics, with companies like Boehringer Ingelheim (partnering Click Therapeutics ) and Pfizer Inc. (SidekickHealth) announcing initiatives in the area. (Boehringer Ingelheim To Focus On Precision Psychiatry In CNS)


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