Monday, 26 September 2016

Lean Startup in Pharma

I was lucky enough to be asked to present at the Health 2.0 conference in Santa Clara this week on the topic of digital innovation in the pharma industry. This might surprise some of you (given that three years ago I'd hardly every worked outside tech and media), but we've actually been doing some cool projects in the industry. 

I thought you might be interested in the topic since pharma is yet another industry impacted by the Digital Economy, but one with some idiosyncrasies created by the hellishly long and expensive product development process and the role of regulators. If they're going to change from pills to outcomes some fairly major things will have to change and I like to think we're helping a little.

As ever, I talked a little about the reasons why digital innovation fails:
  • Failure to validate demand
  • Failure to iterate
  • Failure to track and measure (particularly since the root cause of positive outcomes is hard to figure out)
  • Failure to structure effectively
The particular challenges of doing this in the pharma industry are in red below. Resolutions learned from our project shown in grey.

Lengthy product cycles caused by the typical decade-long drug development process are a barrier because consumer-centric digital experiences are far faster twitch. The practical reality is that digital experiences are features of an overall product system but are distinctly different to drugs themselves. You can't lump them together and expect either to succeed. It's the classic need to introduce a second cadence into the organisation to cope with digital innovation.

The nature of MVP is important to consider as well. When we started off our journey with Snakebite 911 we were presented with a 10 page list of features that should be in the MVP. It's credit to our client that they were willing to radically reduce that down to the bare minimum required to prove the concept. Many don't work that way - they produce 'beta' products with way too many features, which are counterproductive as they muddy the purity of the experiments needed in lean startup.

Decision making is another fundamental issue. Too many boards to collaboratively ruin progress is just not needed in proving digital. Cutting through that with structure is vital: we established working practices to devolve decision making down to a couple of empowered Managers.

Regulation and legislation mean that pharmas are forced to maintain significant distance from patients and therefore can't do typically validated learning. That's a great excuse, but practically there are stakeholders that are more important from a commercial standpoint. Physicians and first responders in our case actually had a huge impact on the outcomes that people got from their treatment. Engaging with them is very much easier (being careful not to advocate products, which is easy if you're a third party and don't understand it!).

Heavy penalties for mistakes are part and parcel of medicine. I understand the need to prevent process-based errors, but there's a difference between that and having a bad product idea. Pharmacos are paranoid in any case and the businesses are generally run by regulation and compliance as much as sales and marketing. We got round this in two ways:
  1. By only doing the absolute minimum in the digital experiences to get a result, rather than complex feature overload that would be hard to clear
  2. By engaging very early with the regulatory teams, listening to them as equals and making them part of the core team. Therefore there were no surprises!
So, early days for me in pharma, but some interesting lessons that have applicability to other industries (e.g. banking) that are also heavily regulated.

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