Pharma’s Tech Partner Wish List

November 14, 2023

By Allison Proffitt 

November 14, 2023 | What is pharma looking for in technology partners? That was the question posed to a panel representing Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, and AstraZeneca last month at the HLTH Conference. The answers revealed some of the trends these pharma companies expect to see in drug development and clinical trials, and the pain points they are actively addressing now.  

The biggest priority in partnerships should be building trust, said Lisa Banks, Vice President, Global Head, Digital Health & Innovation at GlaxoSmithKline. “We are a 300-year-old company. We have a heritage of safe, secure data and looking after our patients with effective medicines. That’s a non-negotiable for us. We need to see that level of trust and the responsibility as a data custodian mirrored in the partnerships that we make,” she said.  

At AstraZeneca, Abby Stabile, Senior Director Commercial Digital Health, called for a results-oriented relationship. “Start small and demonstrate the value as quickly as possible. Be very focused on what you’re able to deliver and start showing results, then the doors will be open to more and more opportunities to expand across the pharma business.”  

“Don’t tell us what’s possible; tell us what’s practical,” advised James Allen, VP, Strategic Partnerships, Pfizer. “There is such a lineage of buzzwords; please leave those at home! Don’t come to us with ‘generalisms’; come to us with specifics.” Pfizer is really focused on simplification of the patient experience right now, Allen said, with expanded access to patients as close second. His questions to would-be tech partners were: “Is this a technology that can help us accelerate the pace of clinical trials? Is this a technology that can help us reach patients faster?”  

Stacy Feld, regional head of innovation at Johnson & Johnson, called innovation the heart of their business, referencing the JLABS model of wet lab and prototyping incubators. “We provide a window into Johnson & Johnson with no strings attached,” she said. The JLABS team helps entrepreneurs and startups advance their innovation through collaboration and helping guide the critical questions needed to de-risk partnerships.  

She advised tech companies to cultivate champions within pharma—but probably not the CEO. “These are really critical touchpoints, especially when you’re talking about early-stage deals,” she said. “Think about it in layers, where you have a scientific champion and a business champion.”  

Banks pushed tech partners to be subject matter experts in the problem, not necessarily the solution. “Show us that you really understand the problem, and then we can start to talk about how your solution addresses that problem,” she said. “Too many times we go down a path whereby there's kind of a generic overview of that statement, and it doesn't feel like you've really understood where we're coming from.”  

Feld expects 70% of research and discovery data to come from wearables and sensors in the next three years, and she flags that as an opportunity for partnerships to tackle some “meaty problems” (for instance, she needs a validated, accurate measure for nocturnal itch). “I'm so excited about how this technology is going to unlock new sources of patient phenotype data that currently we still don't understand because we're taking it by measures of a paper diary,” she said. Wearables and digital biomarkers will let us predict disease progression, she said. “That's what I'm particularly excited about.”  

Feld predicted further precision as well, specifically new endpoints for Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease in the next five to 10 years that will change how we plan trials. She’s looking for technology-enabled platforms that are making known targets newly druggability.  

Shifting Market Needs, Shifting Partner Priorities 

In the years since the pandemic, the healthcare landscape has changed in ways that have had upstream impacts for care delivery, clinical research, and R&D. There are opportunities, then, for tech partners to help pharma meet these new and changing needs.  

The pandemic revealed care disparity, and now, more than ever, patient access is a key point said Allen, particularly for underserved communities. “We’re really looking at how technology can help shortcut some of those really stubborn problems in healthcare settings,” he said. Only slightly in jest, he referred to the rise and fall of virtual care. “Obviously, many of us got used to using telehealth during the pandemic,” he said. “So do we still want to use telehealth as a primary setting of care? Yes, in some conditions,” he said, listing some lower risk primary care conditions. “But absolutely not in some of the more specialty therapeutics,” he continued. “We want people back in their office doing the right pre-screenings, engaging with their oncologist, working with the specialists.” 

In the clinical research realm, trial settings have changed dramatically. “We're more and more getting to the point where hybrid and decentralized [trials] will just become the norm for clinical trials,” observed GSK’s Banks. “It goes back to patient access; it goes back to increasing diversity. You do not have to live near a teaching hospital to be part of a study because you can do real time remote monitoring. We're doing that. We're doing that today.” 

For global pharma companies hoping to develop drugs and therapies that help patients all over the world, technology partners must be well-versed in working in different geographies and regulatory environments, she added. “Having a mind's eye to the different regulatory pathways, the different healthcare systems that we have to operate in,” is a crucial part of scalability.  

Open Questions

Finally, the panel shared their tech wish list. Allen is looking for incentives for people to proactively and comfortably test for easily communicable disease. “Rapid antigen tests, with all due respect, are not that answer yet,” he said.  

Feld is looking for technology advancements in how cell therapies are manufactured and—more generally—solutions to the misinformation problems plaguing the industry. “It's something that is pervasive and threatening our industry. That is such an important problem. I don't know if technology can solve it,” she said.  

Staible is looking for better pathways to commercialization. “We have a ton of brilliant minds and so much science and development happening in AstraZeneca when it comes to digital therapeutics and algorithms for early detection of disease, leveraging retinal scans, you name it,” she said. “The motivation behind these tools is to improve access, patient identification, right patient, right therapy, right time. But we are really struggling finding partners that can take innovations built in-house and deliver them at scale into the healthcare ecosystem.”  

Banks also mentioned an interoperability need. “When we work with external partners, there is an awful lot of heavy lifting that needs to happen in order to get those small startup companies embedded into our data infrastructure. That is very burdensome, and we can't keep doing it time and time and time again,” she said. “When an organization comes to us, what I want them to have in the back of their mind is, ‘How am I going to be able to make sure that [my solution] is seamlessly interoperable with the rest of GSK's data infrastructure and with different healthcare systems as well?’ If we can crack that nut, I think we'll all be a lot happier.”