Digital as the Differentiator for Biopharma and Medtech


With the Inflation Reduction Act now on the books, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) will begin negotiating drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry. That, combined with other headwinds such as increased competition from me-too drugs, and ever-present pricing pressure from payers, means that pharma players now more than ever need a new and powerful tool to differentiate their products. We believe the next decade of transformation is digital.

Learning from the auto industry

Almost every industry has had to confront a fundamental existential question: What is our product? Consider the automotive industry, which once was largely about hardware and some internal software the user was rarely even aware of. Contrast that with today, when huge parts of our experience with cars is actually about the user’s interaction with software. That interaction shapes your opinion of what a car is, and how you really experience the product.

The pharma world is undergoing a similar reckoning. Once it was all about the drug, a pill or injectable, with the physical device delivery side relegated to afterthought status. In other words, the drug was the innovation, not the delivery. Today pharma recognizes that the product is much more than just the drug.

The drug delivery systems model

Take two prominent examples. First, Amgen’s drug Neulasta (pegfilgrastim), used to treat a serious and common complication of many cancer chemotherapies that affects up to half of chemotherapy patients. Designed to be administered the day after chemotherapy treatment, the drug’s initial formulation forced patients to return to the clinic for yet another treatment. Amgen’s solution was to develop a wearable patch that could be applied by the provider during the initial chemotherapy treatment, but that delivers the dose of Neulasta 27 hours later. After its release, the drug became one of the fastest combination products to reach the billion-dollar mark.

The second example is GSK’s Advair (fluticasone propionate and salmeterol inhalation powder), a generic inhaled asthma medication. GSK’s innovation was to develop a disk-like inhaler, the Diskus, with an appealing and easy-to-use form factor, again driving billions in sales.

Clearly, pharma recognized that much more goes into bringing solutions to millions of patients than just the drug itself. So now the leaders at the table for drug development represent the drug formulation, device design and commercial operations. In the near future, the fourth seat at the table will be a digital leader charged with asking (and providing the means to answer) crucial questions:

  • Are these patients appropriately diagnosed?
  • Are we going to have a challenge matching the right patient to our therapy?
  • Is there going to be a responder/non-responder challenge?
  • Do we need personalized drug-dosing algorithms?
  • Do we need personalized adherence?
  • Is it going to be important to measure how well the disease is controlled, or how it progresses?
  • Are we going to need a real-world evidence set to justify the value and impact of what we’re doing?

These questions point to challenges that can be solved by  digital and should originate at the beginning of innovation—just as today, formulation and route of administration are key considerations from the get-go. We believe winning pharma companies are going to understand this and move to this kind of model.

The digital future 

Does this mean that all pharma players will get into the algorithm-building game? No more so than they’re in the drug-delivery device-making game today. But it does mean that winning pharma companies will develop some internal core competencies in digital, to enable them to work with best-in-class partners who live in that realm.

Let’s look to the medical device world for an example of successful digital adoption: ResMed, which makes constant positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines to treat sleep apnea, was the first company to build cellular connectivity into its devices. Today, the company is a global leader in daily remote patient monitoring, with more than 15 million cloud-connectable devices in its network. And perhaps more importantly, that monitoring has delivered new insights into the connections between sleep apnea, hypertension, diabetes and other illnesses.

It’s an example the pharma industry would do well to learn from.

Photo: Who_I_am, Getty Images