Pharma needs to understand the ‘agile’ and ‘nimble’ start-up mindset, says editor

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Pharmaceutical companies could learn from the start-up methodology when adopting next-gen technologies, says founding editor-in-chief of WIRED Magazine UK.

Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and big data technologies are attracting increased attention​ from firms looking to embrace digitisation and advance manufacturing techniques.

However, according to founding editor-in-chief of WIRED UK magazine David Rowan, established pharmaceutical companies could implement aspects of the fast-paced, start-up methodology to “move more quickly” ​within this innovation-driven space.  

We spoke with David Rowan (DR) in the lead up to his opening keynote address at ‘FutureLink’ next week in Munich, Germany, to discuss technology trends and the challenges facing industry adoption.

Q. How can the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry benefit from adopting next-generation tools?

DR: ​There is a lot of talent and smart money going into AI in various forms. The way we do healthcare now is going to become a lot more data-led. The phrase I hear increasingly is “biology is becoming code.”​ Once you can treat the body as a system where there is an awful lot of inputs and outputs – everything from the genome to the microbiome to the personalized impact of various pharmaceuticals and dietary supplements – you can personalize treatments in a very exciting way. Such technologies can help industry measure, in a far more scaled way, how treatments are impacting large numbers of people.

If you are developing medicines, researching genomics, or battling some of the most intractable healthcare challenges, AI will become your friend – it is a way of amplifying your impact.

The biggest breakthroughs will come from humans and AI working in combination. For instance, in diagnostics or radiology, the machine will augment the knowledge of the human, but that human’s experience and recognition will become paramount in what to do next.

Q. What challenges do these industries face when adopting new-age technologies?

DR: ​One of the challenges facing any regulated industry is a perception that they are protected from the speed of innovation in other parts of the market. The financial services industry has been facing the same set of assumptions. The problem is that innovation is coming from start-ups that play by the same rules, as we have seen with the bio-hacking movement.

What this means is that established pharmaceutical companies need to understand the start-up mindset and implement aspects of start-up methodology to move more quickly. They need to test and iterate and use relatively constrained ways of doing business that replicate limited funding and timescales to experiment with new ways to create new product pipelines.

I’m not saying that pharma companies should be abandoning the risk-avoiding culture or taking research shortcuts. I’m saying that it could be very healthy working with more start-ups to understand how agile and nimble they can be when testing the hypotheses in product development and being prepared to try new approaches and then if they fail, work out what lessons they can learn from those failures.

Q. What can Pharma learn from other industries’ use of AI, machine learning and big data?

DR: ​Imagine a world where it is low-cost and relatively simple to track everything from nutritional input, blood indicator levels, protein in the blood admitted by certain cancers. Imagine, in addition, that there are convenient ways for the consumer to monitor such data points.

What we infer from this ideal is that there are so many elements currently invisible to the medical practitioner and consumer. The more of these data points we can measure in an automated way, the earlier we’ll pick up on warning signals and the more effective and personalized treatments will become. All of this will lead to healthier, more independent lives.

David Rowan is the founder and editor-at-large of WIRED Magazine UK, an innovation-focused magazine covering global transformational trends. He specialises in future trends impacting technology, culture and business.

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