Posted: 30 Jul. 2019 6 min. read

After many small steps, is biopharma ready for one giant leap toward digital transformation?

By Greg Reh, vice chairman, US and Global Life Sciences leader, Deloitte LLP

Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong descended the steps of his lunar lander and pressed the first footprints into the dusty surface of the moon. He declared the achievement "one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." Over the past few years, the biopharmaceutical industry has taken a number of small steps toward digitization. We have now reached a point where a growing number of company leaders are trying to decide how to take that giant leap toward digital transformation.

Last October, I wrote that many biopharmaceutical companies were experimenting with digital technologies—but I noted that few of them had made bold or consistent moves toward a digital transformation. My comments were in response to a survey that evaluated the digital maturity of biopharma companies. In the nine months since we published that report, I’ve seen meaningful changes to the digital landscape in this sector. In my conversations with biopharma executives, there is a clear acknowledgement that digital transformation is essential for the future. The challenge in the months and years ahead will be to maintain momentum so companies that are currently doing digital can transition into being digital.

Testing phase appears to be ending

Some of the digital experiments and pilots that biopharma companies launched during the past two or three years are maturing into sustainable programs. We are even beginning to see a few large-scale implementations. As my colleague Dave Rosner noted in his blog, a growing number of life sciences companies have brought on chief digital officers—often from outside industries—to lead their digital transformations. This is another signal that the industry has changed its thinking when it comes to digital.

Digital transformation is a foundational change that occurs when technologies are used to accelerate innovation, streamline processes, and eliminate barriers. This can help improve efficiencies, power new products or services, enable new business models, and even blur some of the boundaries between industries. Companies that lack a transformational vision could open the door to startups and new entrants that are looking to disrupt the industry from outside. Companies that choose not build or partner for digital capabilities are likely to be disrupted by those that do.

Can digital transformation help biopharma reach the stratosphere?

The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions led a four-day online crowdsourcing simulation with leaders from the biopharma sector to find out where they were in their digital journey. We found that biopharma companies are getting closer to incorporating digital technologies more broadly in everything from research and development (R&D), to supply chain, to patient engagement. Here’s an overview of what we learned:

  • Research: Digital transformation has the potential to drastically improve productivity by applying artificial intelligence (AI) and computational biology to drug discovery and development and by making clinical trials much more efficient. More than 140 startups are developing AI-based drug-discovery tools.1 In addition, nearly 300 novel cell and gene therapies are in development for a variety of diseases and conditions. Exscientia, a British biopharma company, is using its AI platform to automate the analysis of existing discovery data (including journals, patents, databases) to help identify novel compounds for synthesis. The platform pre-assesses each of the identified compounds for predicted potency, selectivity, absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion (ADME), and other key criteria. The platform could cut down the time needed to identify drug candidates to roughly one fourth of the time taken by traditional methods. While AI holds tremendous promise, it is worth noting that we are in the early stages of realizing its usefulness.
  • Digital clinical trials: The pharmaceutical industry has been somewhat reluctant to move to digital clinical trials—particularly companies that lack the necessary systems and processes. Some companies have also assumed that regulators might not support the change. However, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has acknowledged that data collected digitally can be analyzed more quickly, which can improve the safety profile of a new product.2 In a recent blog post, my colleague Dawn Anderson explained that the transition to digital or virtual clinical trials could dramatically improve recruitment by breaking down some of the barriers that can keep patients from participating. The ability to target certain patient populations and enroll them in a trial more quickly can reduce the time it takes to bring a new product to market. The cost to bring a drug to market has skyrocketed over the past several years—from $1.1 billion in 2010 to more than $2.1 billion in 2018, according to Deloitte’s annual analysis on measuring the return of pharmaceutical innovation. Every day that a new drug isn’t on the market could translate to $1 million dollars or more in lost revenue.
  • Supply chain: Manufacturing and shipping cell and gene therapies will likely require a different set of capabilities compared to the process used for traditional molecules. These capabilities should include advanced analytics and workflow automation to seamlessly coordinate patient cell collection, manufacturing capacities, cold chain logistics, and delivery of the viable product to the transfusion center.1 Digital supply networks (DSNs) leverage a variety of technologies such as sensors, robotic process automation (RPA), blockchain, and advanced analytics to enable greater product visibility, traceability, and inventory control.
  • Patient engagement: Digital technologies—combined with behavioral science principles—could help improve patient engagement. The crowd agreed that messages should be sent at the right time and include customized clinical information, education materials, and interventional and wellness recommendations. Moreover, direct-to-consumer interaction could require biopharma to behave more like today’s consumer brands—by analyzing and anticipating consumer needs to deliver personalized solutions. We are also seeing increased interest in the use of digital technologies to improve patient participation and sustained engagement in clinical trials.

The three pillars of a digital strategy

Along the journey toward the future of health, I see digital transformation as a critical step for biopharma companies. Our recently published paper (based on the crowdsourcing) details the three categories of a digital strategy. As company leaders push their organizations forward, they should consider an enterprise-wide approach that utilizes this framework to categorize their digital transformation use cases:

  1. Innovate new products and services: Catalyze the development of products, services, and new business models to drive value for customers using data and innovative platforms.
  2. Engage effectively: Drive a new engagement model that creates and delivers targeted interactions that address patient, customer, and employee needs to foster loyal relationships.
  3. Execute efficiently: Digitize and rationalize processes to drive efficiencies and cost savings and develop a digital culture that enables new ways of thinking and capabilities.

Our research and client experience suggest that digital transformation can be a complex and resource-intensive undertaking. Moreover, it promises to fundamentally change the way business is done. But I think the time has come for biopharma leaders to consider all of the steps they’ve taken toward digitization. Companies that are able to make the giant leap to digital transformation could rocket ahead of their competitors, as well as fend off companies from outside the industry that are trying to enter biopharma’s orbit.

1. BenchSci blog, 141 Startups Using Artificial Intelligence in Drug Discovery, July 3, 2019
2. FDA, Breaking Down Barriers Between Clinical Trials and Clinical Care: Incorporating Real World Evidence into Regulatory Decision Making, January 28, 2018


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Greg Reh

Greg Reh

DTTL Global Life Sciences Sector Leader

Greg serves as the Deloitte Global Life Sciences & Health Care Industry Leader. In this role, he advises life sciences and health care clients and practice leaders within Deloitte’s global network; and is responsible for the overall industry group that conducts research and provides consulting, advisory, tax and audit services to clients in the industry. The global life sciences and health care industry group is comprised of over 20,000 colleagues in more than 90 countries that work with pharmaceutical, biotech, medtech, payer, provider and government clients. Greg also leads Deloitte’s relationship with one the world’s largest health care companies, which entails enabling and coordinating client teams around the world. Prior to his current roles, he served as the US life sciences leader; and as the global life sciences leader. Greg’s experience over the last 27 years includes working with multinational pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and chemical manufacturing organizations where he led consulting engagements in support of regulatory, clinical, commercial and manufacturing operations. His engagements focused on technology strategy and solution development; business-technology enabled transformation and the management of change. Prior to his consulting career Greg held positions at a government research lab, where he led teams in the design and development of life support devices; and was a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. Greg holds an MS from the University of Pennsylvania, and a BSME from Drexel University.