Pharma execs talk challenges, opportunities of partnering with digital therapeutics

At DTx in Boston representatives of major pharma companies discuss opportunies of working with digital theraputics companies and what they wish the startups knew.
By Laura Lovett
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As more and more partnerships between digital therapeutics and pharma companies begin to emerge, the two industries have started to size each other up. While this may foster an exchange of ideas, there is also the danger of concepts getting lost in translation between the two industries. 

Yesterday DTx East in Boston pharma execs talked about the future, realities, and challenges of digital therapeutics, and about what digital therapeutic companies just don’t get about pharma. 

Panelist pointed out that the digital therapeutics industry is still in its infancy compared to the established pharma world and there are chances for the former to learn from its more established counterpart. 

“One of the challenges with digital therapeutics companies is that their mindset is 'How do we sell this as it is?' rather than 'How do we partner with pharma?',” Melinda Decker, head of oncology and immuno-oncology and intelligent pharmaceuticals at AstraZenieca, said at the conference. “In dealing with the likes of Apple and Google everyone is looking for this Candy Crush and how do we sell it on downloads. …Not having this understanding that I’m not trying to get $5 a download; but I have oncology products that are $100,000 per year, which patients are maybe 70 percent compliant on, and if I can keep them compliant, and reduce [adverse events] in real time so that they can stay on those for five years, it is a completely different model. So having that understanding, I’m not trying to get $5 a download. This isn’t my world.”

While some digital therapeutic startups might have a lot to learn, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a valuable partner for big pharma. 

“I’ve found digital therapeutics space and the startup space something to embrace,” Jeff Mathers, senior director of software engineering and emerging technology at Johnson & Johnson Technology said at the conference. “If you work at a company like J&J that has been around for 150 years, and there are hundreds of competing groups, getting people inside the company to feel a sense of urgency is extremely difficult. But if you can highlight some new startups and some digital spaces that are stating to encroach on our business areas, you can actually inspire and motivate a company like J&J to act faster.”

The panelists were in agreement that partnerships between pharma and digital therapeutics companies is the way of the future. But there needs to be give and take and learning. 

“These technologies have a tremendous opportunity to bring benefits to patients, but realistically none of them are out there. We have a collective obligation to get it right,” Jorvis van Dam, executive director of digital therapeutics at Novartis, said on the panel. “So what I  don’t like is conversations [saying] pharma just doesn’t get it. I’m sure we don’t, but nobody gets it. …This discussion isn't about who is the smartest person in the room, [it’s about] how can we work together, how can we change what we have done before to get the benefits for patients.”

Pharma can also help younger companies navigate the complex healthcare industry. For example, in pharma the stakes are high and liability is a major concern, Decker said. 

“So when people say something about privacy and a digital therapeutics company comes [in] and says we can do that for you,” Decker said. “It’s like do you have any idea the liability we have or what that means for a $6 billion product? That’s where it gets hard.”

For the most part digital therapeutics haven’t quite made their way onto the prescription pad, but that doesn’t mean digital isn’t making waves already. Decker noted that digital health products, like sensors, are already being used to facilitate clinical trials, which she counts as a win for the industry. 

However, for the future there are still questions about reimbursement. Bozidar Jovicevic, vice president and global head of digital medicines at Sanofi, said that when looking at these partnerships pharma is still figuring out the business models and figuring out where these products fit into the portfolio financially. 

“I think the more clarity we get about all of these questions, the more partnerships we’ll have,” Jovicevic said.