Pharma companies don’t want unicorn digital therapeutic partnerships

Panelists at DTx East discuss the journey to implementing digital therapeutics into pharma and say more partnerships are likely.
By Mallory Hackett
01:01 pm

Digital healths’ moment in the sun doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon, and one area that is just beginning its journey into virtual care is the pharmaceutical industry. 

In recent years, pharma has taken an interest in the digital health space, and even before the pandemic hit, experts from HealthXL expected 2020 to be a big year for digital therapeutics in pharma. 

This morning at the DTx East 2020 web conference, a group of panelists from a range of pharma companies talked about their experiences and predictions for future digital integration in pharma. 

One thing that the panelists agreed on was the potential value that implementing digital therapeutics could have on patients. 

“There's a great opportunity to amplify our ability to personalize therapies and deliver a much more patient-centered, customer experience,” Paul Upham, the head of smart devices at Roche and Genentech, said during the panel. 

Although pharmaceutical companies have a long way to go before they fully integrate digital therapeutics into their pipeline, if there’s one thing that this year has shown is that rapid implementation is possible and likely. 

“Wherever you are as a company right now, I would say that’s not necessarily where you’re very likely to be in the next five years,” Michael Latauska, the director of digital health at Boehringer Ingelheim, said. “For those who feel like they’re part of a very established culture where DTx perhaps hasn’t taken hold, that can change quickly.”

For companies that have begun working digital therapeutics into their business strategy, pulling lessons learned from past experiences with technology plays an important role in moving forward, Upham said.

“We’re finding opportunities to leverage remote monitoring, to leverage digital biomarkers as integral parts of the initial digital therapeutic strategy as well,” he said. 

Taking the knowledge that COVID-19 has provided the industry will also be critical, according to Lauren Li, the head of digital health at Ipsen. 

“It forced us as an industry to recognize and take a step back,” she said. “We’re experiencing a shock in exposing our limitations in the infrastructure we have put in place when another epidemic might hit in the future. So it actually forced us to take a longer look.”

The panelists also said they would look back on past partnerships between pharma and digital therapeutics companies to evaluate what worked and what didn’t. 

When reexamining partnerships that didn’t work out, Latauska said companies should come from a place of humility. 

“We expected the development timelines to be shorter, we expected them to be quite a bit cheaper than they really are to develop, and to develop clinical evidence for, and a little bit easier to deploy as well,” he said. “I think we’ve learned some very hard lessons about how to do those things and how much they cost in terms of resources and time that we wouldn’t have guessed in the beginning.”

As for future partnerships, the market can expect to see more, according to Rachel Sha, the vice president of digital business development at Sanofi. 

“Since pharma is still really at the beginning stages of this new space, we’re probably going to partner – not sure about acquiring – but we’re certainly going to partner or invest more often, because we probably don’t have the internal muscles to do this on a routine, systematic basis,” she said.

Pharma companies looking to add digital therapeutics don’t necessarily want a unicorn, Joris Van Dam, the executive director and head of digital therapeutics at Novartis, said. 

“What we’re looking for is ecosystem, ecosystem, ecosystem,” he said. “For us, it makes it easier to work together and for us. It makes it easier to expand or to pivot from one program to another.”

Beyond just figuring out their spot in the market, digital therapeutics companies need to connect and integrate with other services that can lead to better health outcomes, according to Van Dam. 

Others are looking for transparency within a digital therapeutic company before beginning a partnership.

“What do you really have in terms of technology? What do you really have in terms of capabilities? What is your strategic road map and how does that align with our interests?” Sha asked. “If we can have an open and honest conversation about that, then I think we can really kind of explore a full spectrum of what our partnering could be.”

If there’s one thing that digital therapeutics companies should do, it’s to keep innovating, Van Dam said. 

“I’m recommending to not wait for pharma to change our own model,” he said. “We can be great partners, but go out there with all the zeal and effort, and inspiration and dedication you bring to this conference and change the world.”


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