A Pandemic-Driven Digital Transformation: What Will Stick for Life Sciences

September 23, 2021

By Allison Proffitt 

September 23, 2021 | Nimita Limaye, Research VP at IDC, gave a broad overview of IDC’s survey findings over the past 18 months at this week’s Bio-IT World Conference and Expo held in Boston and online. She highlighted trends in the life sciences that included increased collaboration, speedier adoption of technologies, and a look at how executives are viewing—and planning—digital transformation.

After the unprecedented disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies in the life sciences industry returned with a focus on digital resiliency—seeking to recover and grow in the new times. 

In speaking with life sciences executives, IDC identified a few shifts in C-suite thinking during the pandemic. Executives focused on the short term, ensuring business continuity and digital resiliency and prioritizing patient and employee experience. But they also made changes that are lasting beyond the initial crisis response: turning to federated learning platforms to fuel collaboration, embedding technologies within business strategies, positioning the enterprise as data-driven, which includes providing your teams with consumable, accessible data in real time, and moving to agile, flexible operating models. 

Infrastructure has grown and shifted to accommodate both increasing data volumes and a distributed workforce. IDC surveys find a jump in GxP compliant unified cloud platforms. Limaye reported that about half of the life sciences industry has moved to a public cloud, but also reported what looks like a more recent shift back to private cloud. 

Flexible compute is also supporting the push toward AI and machine learning-driven predictive analytics. IDC surveys predict a CAGR for machine learning in clinical trials of 23.4%, and a 65% increase in AI spending over the next 12 months for life sciences companies. She highlighted a 48% increase in spending on AI for drug discovery—70% of that will be focused on precision medicine and genomics. 

According to survey data, the increased AI investment is driven by improving employee productivity, new product development, and improved risk management. Limaye also reported that 2/3 of the industry will have deployed AI algorithms for real-world evidence by the end of this year. 

There’s been unprecedented growth in cell and gene therapies, Limaye noted, though she pointed out that for the more than 1,200 products in development only about 20 or so have been approved.

The bottleneck, she said, is manufacturing challenges for gene therapies. Those needs—further pushed to the forefront by the COVID-19 supply chain challenges for PPE, tests, and vaccines—are driving development of closed loop, just-in-time supply chains. 

“The industry got pretty badly hit when you could not distribute masks, you could not distribute PPE,” Limaye said. But the industry rallied, implementing “thinking” supply chains employing AI and supply chain “control towers” to drive equitable and timely distribution of vaccines. Today, she said, there are 50 smart vaccine management solutions in the industry.  IDC expects the industry to show a 50% increase in investments in AI for developing smart supply chains.

Collaboration and Transformation

But one of the biggest trends that Limaye reported had nothing to do with new technologies or product lines. If nothing else, COVID has emphasized the need for collaboration within the industry. “COVID really brought this message home that you really need to collaborate if you want to accelerate innovation,” she said. Digital ecosystems are the future, she argued, reporting that 70% of the life sciences companies in the EU plan to join an industry digital ecosystem.

Limaye shared results from IDC’s executive survey on digital transformation, reporting that the life sciences industry will invest more than 35% of its IT budget on digital transformation initiatives in 2021 and 2022. Nearly half of the surveyed companies reported that they planned to establish a digital transformation roadmap in the next 12-24 months. 

That’s not terribly surprising, Limaye said. More unexpected is that almost one third of companies plan two roadmaps: one for digital transformation technology investment and one for business transformation. 

Patient experience is shaping digital transformation, Limaye said.

The top priorities for investment are process automation, collaboration and flexible working solutions, digital resiliency, online engagement, and new digital offerings to build the intelligent enterprise of the future.