We talked with John Gordon, the head of digital in international developed markets at Pfizer, about digital innovation and collaboration with startups at the 168-year-old company, which is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies globally and is known to consumers for drugs like Lipitor and Viagra.
Why do the digital sector and a pharmaceuticals-maker meet?
Pfizer recognises the impact that digital technology is going to have on the way healthcare is provided across the world. To ensure that we can continue to deliver on our commitment to patients who rely on us, we are seeking innovations from the digital health ecosystem that complement our medicines and drive the best possible outcome for patients throughout their journey.
You cannot deliver a pill in digital format though?
Our partnerships in the digital arena are all about complementing our medicines – giving patients the best outcome from the medicines we have developed and provide to society. Think about the patient journey: you have disease awareness, when patients are trying to understand what condition they have and physicians are looking at the symptoms patients describe. Then they go through the process of measurement and detection to reach a diagnosis. Once they have a diagnosis physicians make a treatment recommendation for the patient, but the patient wants to understand enough about the medicine to take it.
There are many opportunities along the patient journey for digital technology. For example, we use social media to support patients’ learning about different diseases – if they have a symptom that correlates with one of the diseases then they go to a healthcare professional for support.
We collaborate with technology startups to improve diagnoses, such as helping to improve the speed at which patients can be diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia using simpler mobile technology instead of things like ECG monitors to measure your cardiac rhythm. Once the patient has a diagnosis and is taking the medicine, we can work with specific healthcare providers to support a patient’s understanding about how to take their medicine and to remind them to take the medicine regularly, as prescribed by their doctor.
As head of digital in international developed markets you cover all of Europe, Russia, Israel, Turkey, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand: why such a combination?
Those countries are grouped together because they have similar healthcare systems and are grappling with similar healthcare challenges. When we look for digital solutions to solve those challenges, it’s likely that we can scale those same solutions to other countries in the region more easily. North America has quite a different setup in comparison.
As head of digital, I cover everything from how Pfizer uses digital technology to communicate with healthcare professionals and patients, through to the types of digital technology that support patients in getting better outcomes, like wearables, augmented reality and artificial intelligence.
Of those tech industry buzzwords, which will be the most relevant for the medical sector in the near future?
In the near-term there is huge problem with patients remembering or feeling motivated to take medicines that have been prescribed for them. The literature suggests that adherence is a global challenge, so we are exploring how technology can improve adherence for different types of patients.
The types of technology we are exploring include basic patient education tools telling them about their condition or why they should take the medicine, such as adding video content to consumer healthcare information or downloadable documents that can be read on mobile. Increasingly, we are also exploring things like augmented and virtual reality as a way to provide a more immersive educational experience to patients.
Ultimately, the pharmaceutical industry has always suffered from this challenge of adherence. What has changed in the last 10 years is mobile technology. Now patients have a powerful computer in their hand, giving us a better opportunity to provide educational content to patients so that they get the best from their medicines.
Is there a good solution for chronic disease patients to get a reminder? Wouldn’t a calendar alert do? Do they need a fancy app for that?
All patients are different. Patients’ adherence to their treatment varies for different reasons. If they simply forget, a reminder will help them. But some patients need educating about the necessity of taking their medicine and want to address concerns they have around taking medicines, like side effects. There is no single solution that fits all patients – we look at the types of patients suffering from a particular condition, break them down into different segments to understand what the challenges are for that segment and find technology solutions to address those challenges. What mobile does is give us an opportunity to provide different interventions, ranging from a simple text message reminder to video content informing them about their condition.
How does Pfizer co-operate with startups?
We have been experimenting with our relationship with startups for several years. In the last 12 months, we have launched a more formal programme, called the Healthcare Hub programme, which looks at the startup community in different cities around the world and enables a network of digital innovation hubs; identifying, interacting with and supporting startups who have solutions for our patients’ most challenging problems.
We started the hub programme in Berlin some time ago, because there was a huge amount of startup activity in Berlin. The German team began by running some networking evenings with startup companies, giving the startups an opportunity to talk to a big corporate and offering us the opportunity to talk to entrepreneurs about the changing world of healthcare.
That kicked off other activities, like mentoring startups in subject areas such as clinical trial design, market access, marketing and communications. There seemed to be an opportunity to roll out this collaboration to other countries in the region, where there was enough startup activity.
We do not call ourselves an accelerator. It is about looking for startups with solutions that help our most challenging patient problems, then looking for what each startup needs to develop as a company and whether Pfizer could support them with that, through things like mentoring, pitch practice to senior execs, or a more formalised collaboration agreement.
The premise is that big corporates are excellent at execution and scaling solutions – we can really help startups with that – but we could improve on our ability to ideate around a challenge and rapidly work out and prototype innovative ideas in an agile way: we call it “fast fail or fast scale”. That’s where we learn from startups, so there is something in this for both sides.
We work with entrepreneurs and involve our colleagues internally to drive a stronger culture of innovation within our organisation, which is important if we are going to be successful in this rapidly-changing world.
It seems that many large companies get excited about the startup world these days.
We have been careful to ensure we find the right partners in the startup community. We look at where our strengths are and where we can help them with innovation. We have strong local and international networks of key opinion leaders and we look for startups with more developed solutions that we can experiment with rapidly. If something is successful we can help that startup scale to other countries quickly through our international network.
It’s always interesting when large companies try to work with small companies. How do massive companies balance it?
It’s definitely a challenge, but both the startup and the big corporate are usually eager to solve it together.
We just announced a partnership with a Danish company called Cortrium – they build mobile ECG monitors, which can help detect arrhythmia. A small part of our sales team will drive awareness of the Cortrium device among the stakeholders that are important to Cortrium, because we have aligned objectives – our joint stakeholders are cardiologists. We want cardiologists to identify patients suffering from arrhythmia faster and more efficiently; Cortrium has the solution. We have worked through some of the challenges that any big corporate has when working with a small startup, but we have ended up with a solution that is a really exciting partnership, where the small company sees a true benefit coming from a large company.
Have you tried something like this before?
Cortrium is the best example. It is a true partnership that does not include any equity in the company. It brings benefits to both sides in the collaboration and the patient wins eventually.
It is the first of several collaborations we have ongoing in Healthcare Hubs across the world.
How do the Healthcare Hubs work?
They have organised events, such as networking evenings on specific subject areas where startups can come and listen to speakers talk about the subject of interest to them and brainstorm ideas with our internal colleagues afterwards – informal networking.
We have more formal partnership approaches too. In Germany and London, we have run Pfizer healthcare challenges. We formalise our outreach to startups, seeking submissions to solve key challenges that we face right now.
We put out requests to startups that have solutions to particular problems, assess the applications and offer the best ones a working relationship with Pfizer, providing mentoring by various colleagues in the business who can help them overcome specific challenges they might have. Later, we will promote them to the various stakeholders we know, giving access to our network. In four cases we have offered a small financial reward, but startups tell us that money is very low down their list of priorities when looking at programmes like this – it is more about the ability to network with a big corporate and gain experience.
I’m sure startups are interested in the potential reach you provide to the whole health care system.
Some of our challenges have attracted startups from the whole international community. Our first collaboration in Germany is with a Danish company that wanted to break into the German market with their business.