How to build a better relationship between pharma and digital health

Remember that you are partners who have come together because you each have unique skills that the other cannot replicate on their own.
By Joe Slavinsky
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About the author: Joe Slavinsky leads business development efforts with pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical technology companies in his VP position at Propeller Health. A former epidemiologist, he worked at a hedge fund (Citadel) and an investment bank (Thomas Weisel Partners) as an equity research analyst covering small/mid-cap biotechnology companies. Joe joined Propeller from Gilead Sciences, where he focused on commercial strategy and corporate development.

I was recently working with one of our pharmaceutical partners when I had an epiphany.

We’d been working together to implement a digital therapeutics program, and we were struggling to make things work. The iterative, agile product development methodology we use in digital therapeutics had collided with the meticulous, hierarchical, waterfall product development methodology of pharma. We were stuck and it wasn’t clear to either of us how we could get out of that rut.

Eventually we got a green light to do a small pilot, giving asthma patients access to our platform. Within a month, we had enrolled patients, collected insights and brought back data. The data spoke to people in a way that twenty presentations couldn’t, and we saw a tremendous shift in buy-in and excitement around the project within the pharma company.

I’ve worked in and around pharma for over 15 years, and now digital health for quite some time, but that kind of moment continues to surprise me. After months of getting frustrated by our differences, we finally took one of the strengths of digital therapeutics — speed — and used it to bring pharma what they needed: proof. If we could do that more often, we would achieve success much more quickly.

This is clearly a priority for all of us in the digital health industry. Here’s what I’ve learned from years of making these partnerships work.

Find a champion within the pharma company

The most important step in making this partnership work figuring out who in the pharma organization can lead the transformation. This person will be the one to lead, cajole and sometimes drag your teams toward your goals.

You need someone inside of that pharma company that is pitching the digital health company like they were one of your colleagues. Educate them and give them the tools to be able to sell your company to their internal colleagues. It’s not possible for you to be there every time your company’s name comes up within the pharma company, but it’s likely that your champion will be there for most of them.

This person needs three core qualities:

  • Vision: They truly believe in the future of digital medicines and can see how they will fit into patient life, physician practice and pharmaceutical workflows.
  • Persuasion: They’re the kind of person you find yourself nodding along with when they pitch an idea — especially when they are pitching your idea.
  • Persistence and problem solving: They’re willing to walk the long road to making the pharma company digitally competitive. The road within pharma will be long and rocky, so they need to be proactive and aggressive in their internal pitching. This person will run into obstacles as they try to convince their colleagues that it makes sense to partner with a digital health company. It is easy to find a reason not to pursue these new types of collaborations; they are hard to get off the ground and they go against the status quo within pharma.

Expect roadblocks — and plan for them

There are certain challenges that I’ve come to realize are almost universal in a partnership between pharma and digital. For example, we often encounter tension between different areas of the pharmaceutical company. One decision might make marketing happy while causing problems for legal/compliance. The question, “Whose budget is covering this?” will steer your partnership/program in certain ways as well. Stay true to your vision, but be realistic about the road ahead.

It helps to start off the partnership with a fear-shedding meeting. Get everyone who will be involved in the project in one room, and tell everyone to get all their fears out on the table. This is difficult for a pharma company to do, since knowledge is power in their eyes. They don’t want to tell you what they are thinking. But in our experience, transparency from the get-go is the most efficient way of getting these partnerships in place. Otherwise, you will spin your wheels and the frustration will mount.

Some questions that might come up during that meeting include: When will this start paying for itself? How will we scale distribution? Will doctors want to use it? How do we get reimbursement? You won’t be able to answer every question, but you’ll be able to take them as follow-ups and work with the department to find an answer. We have learned alongside our partners in many instances, particularly in new territories where we are launching.

Take advantage of each other’s strengths

Digital therapeutics companies and big pharma have very different strengths. As a digital therapeutics company, you have the ability to make changes quickly and with little notice. Exercise that ability early and often. Iterate. Then iterate again.

For example, we once found out that our marketing materials had to change on a dime because we couldn’t make a certain claim about the product. We turned the changes around in 24 hours. That’s an area that we can use our flexibility and nimbleness to our advantage, to benefit our partner and the relationship.

On the other side, big pharma companies bring an intricate knowledge of their customers, whether those are physicians, payers or providers. They bring massive marketing muscle to the table. Try to leverage that if and when you can. It is very unlikely that you will have the reach that the pharma company field force has.

Have the wisdom to accept the things you cannot change

If you’ve never worked at a pharma/biotech company, it may seem outrageous when you see their processes. But remember: it’s not possible to change the culture of a large pharmaceutical company, and it will be a waste of time, energy and goodwill to try to do so. Instead, the digital partner’s job is to find a way to work within and around those processes, iterating your product while accepting that certain things just take time with pharma. There is really no way to completely avoid this.

For example, your partner’s MLR (medical, legal and regulatory) team may only meet once a quarter. If you miss the meeting, you’ll have to wait until the next one, so find out when the meeting is, and be prepared. Become an expert in your partner’s processes so that you can figure out how to adapt to them, not change them.


Every time you start thinking of yourselves as adversaries, stop and take a breath. Remember that you are partners who have come together because you each have unique skills that the other cannot replicate on their own.

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