MHN 2016: How Boehringer Ingelheim's digital health strategy has evolved since 2011

By Jonah Comstock
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Larry Brooks, director of business innovation at Boehringer Ingelheim, took the stage in a fireside chat with Medullan EVP and Managing Director Jonathan Chen at MobiHealthNews 2016 in San Francisco last week. Brooks has been leading Boehringer's digital health group for the past five years, and he shed some light on how the pharma company's approach to the space has changed during that time.

"About four or five years ago, we started a group called 'business model and healthcare innovation'," he said. "The mandate of the team was essentially to look at how novel healthcare technologies can really have an impact on our core business. So we spent the first year really canvassing the landscape, understanding what was out there, signing a lot of deals, probably 20 or 25, and really trying to figure out the synergy between the digital health community and Boehringer as a pharmaceutical business."

While the first year was about broad discovery efforts, each year since then the company has narrowed its focus, he said.

"Year two and three was really about how we engaged strategic alignment, transitioning those projects that we started into core functions and transferring budget and budget management responsibilities to the different business units," he said. "And then in year four, which was last year, we started a US-focused team that was really charged with how we can redefine the products we bring to market so it’s no longer just a single pharmaceutical solution but it’s a broader healthcare solution where the pharmaceutical becomes a critical component, but just a component, and the focus has really been about driving scale."

Now that the company has a handle on some of these technologies, they've begun to approach new projects from a patient perspective, rather than first considering the needs of the business.

"We take a systems view. So instead of looking for opportunities we find interesting, or even starting with an internal business need, recently we’ve really taken a patient — or, I should say, a person — focus," he said. "How do people really live their lives with chronic diseases? And then understanding from that the different needs that they have, developing solution concepts, and then increasing the degree of fidelity so we can ultimately test whether various solutions can have an impact on their life. I’ve been at Boehringer for 10 years and lived the digital health world within BI for the last five, and I’ve never been more excited. Because when you start talking to patients and understanding how they live their life and what their needs are, you get really excited by the opportunity we have before us."

But building toward the needs of the patients is not without challenges. One challenge that Chen and Brooks mentioned is the oft-maligned disconnect between the fast pace of the startup world and the slower, more cautious pace pharma tends to take. Another is the recognition that a patient focus will often mean your products aren't the only ones a patient is using.

"I have a hypothesis which is that in five to ten years, maybe more, maybe less, every therapeutic will come with a corresponding digital asset," Brooks said. "And I think the challenge that we’re going to have is that we all know that people have multple chronic diseases and multiple medications they’re managing. So I think we’re going to have to reconcile the dichotomy of every company developing their own solution and patients having multpile conditions. We’re going to have to solve for this."