For more than a year, the world has lived through a pandemic that has brought enormous tragedy and loss. But among the many lessons it’s also presented, the value of partnerships has been central. Inter-organizational collaboration has occurred between private and public entities, companies that were formerly competitors, and large and small organizations joining forces to leverage each other’s capabilities and create life-saving vaccines and therapeutics. The biopharmaceutical industry appears to have stepped more boldly into an era that it was already wading into—and this trend will only expand in the coming years.
Part of what has enabled collaborations to emerge relatively smoothly over recent years, and especially the past year, has been a growing trend toward digital transformation. This term is more encompassing than “digital strategy,” and represents a company’s full-scale shift to digital data storage, management, and interpretation, which save a company time and money and bring a drug to market faster.
Early examples of pharmaceutical industry collaboration
To give just a brief history, in the 1980s, most organizations operated as fully integrated pharma companies or FIPCOs, whereby one company would carry out all research and data storage and management under one roof. Around the late 1990s and early 2000s, the emergence of the PC and semiconductor industries made it clear that no single company was responsible for a given product—each was a result of multiple companies working together. Similarly, the biopharma industry began identifying areas that could be outsourced, which would benefit them from an efficiency/cost perspective and allow for greater innovation. So, the model then became a fully integrated pharmaceutical network or FIPNET, where companies outsourced large parts of their work to partners and contract research organizations (CROs). Many companies still function this way.
In the last several years, we’ve started seeing wholly virtual companies (virtually integrated pharmaceutical company, or VIPCO), where not just some but all research is distributed across partners. This has been viewed as an extremely efficient way to develop a drug candidate and move it more quickly to approval and to the patient. This model is still in its early stages, but will likely gain popularity, as it can be used to lower costs and increase throughput considerably.
New collaborations—and new challenges
As the public is likely aware these days, there are also collaborations between former competitors in the “race” toward a COVID-19 vaccine—Pfizer and BioNTech, Sanofi and GSK, AstraZeneca and Oxford University, and Janssen and the U.S. department of Health and Human Services, to name just a few. Smaller, startup pharma companies and academic institutions, which may be good at adopting new tech and reducing time to discover a new target or molecule, may partner with larger companies to bring it to market. Clearly, collaboration is happening more and more on every level, and not just between companies in close proximity, but globally. And this will only increase in the years ahead.
With all this collaboration comes enormous data flow—including data storage and management, and the need for everyone in the network to be able to add data and gain insight from it. To support collaboration at the level required now and in the future, as mentioned, digital transformation is key—that is, a fully integrated, cloud-based digital data management system. Digital data management has numerous benefits for an R&D company: reduced human error, enhanced data sharing between teams and organizations, reducing time and cost, and enhanced compliance and communication with regulatory agencies. It can often mean eliminating paper once and for all, enabling staff to work remotely, automating processes and systems to enhance efficiency, and of course, allowing for global collaboration.
Case studies on how digital transformation enables intra- and inter-organizational collaboration
There are some great examples of collaborations enabled by smart data management in recent years. A biotechnology firm focused on precision therapies for kidney disease, needed to upgrade its data management system to support its collaborations. They had originally tried an on-site electronic notebook system to serve as a repository for documents, but it didn’t end up serving their needs—so they switched to a cloud-based e-notebook system that would allow them to input and aggregate data across studies and locations.
The system is hosted, managed, and secured remotely, and anyone within the company, from chemists to biologists to pharmacologists to computational research scientists can add data. Importantly, using a cloud-based system allows the company to share data with its external partners and collaborators, including corporate partners, academic institutions, and CROs and other service providers—the company now reports that collaboration workflows are vastly improved and partners from across the network all contribute data to the system.
Another great example is a leading mRNA therapeutics company who have written in detail about their own deliberate and successful digital transformation strategy. The company implemented a cloud-based electronic lab notebook system to reduce complexity both in its scientific and business operations. It enabled them to streamline and track experiments, share data across collaborators, and run multiple R&D programs in parallel. Their ability to generate, analyze, and learn from their data happens on two levels: one is within a modality (e.g., prophylactic vaccine development) and across collaborators ranging from Merck to the NIH, while the other is between modalities or therapeutic areas. The highly digitized nature of the company is also likely a reason they were a forerunner in developing a COVID-19 vaccine, applying learnings from their prior research and quickly adapting them to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Digital collaboration will pave the way to a new era of drug development
Digital collaboration solutions are relevant across drug discovery and development. The potential value is directly related to the frequency of communication and decisions across these processes. McKinsey & Co. estimates that digital collaboration can boost productivity by 20 to 30 percent in collaboration-intensive work processes.1,2 Embedding digital collaboration-enabled processes into the enterprise’s overall digital transformation strategies can help the biopharmaceutical industry improve productivity, through increased transparency and better insights via real-time analytics. The value of digital transformation will only become more evident in the coming years, as companies and collaborations become more efficient and novel therapeutics are brought to market faster.
1. Digital collaboration for manufacturing workforce. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/operations/our-insights/digital-collaboration-for-a-connected-manufacturing-workforce. Published May 5, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2021
2. How digital collaboration helps banks serve customers better. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/financial-services/our-insights/banking-matters/how-digital-collaboration-helps-banks-serve-customers-better. Published May 14, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2021.
About the author:
Abhay Kini is director of product management, IDBS.