Tech Collaborations – Harnessing potential whilst balancing risk

Megan McMellon

On 18 June, Google and Sanofi announced a new collaboration aimed at accelerating healthcare innovation. The collaboration has three key objectives:

  1. to better understand patients and diseases;
  2. to increase Sanofi’s operational efficiency; and
  3. to improve the experience of Sanofi’s patients and customers.

Google and Sanofi will develop an Innovation Lab to test and explore both scientific and commercial solutions. For example, using analytics to better understand what treatments work for patients and using artificial intelligence (AI) to better forecast sales.

In addition, Google’s Cloud Platform will be used to modernise Sanofi’s infrastructure. Various business applications will be migrated to Google Cloud and an analytics and machine learning platform will be built. These initiatives will support Sanofi’s business objectives, including the Innovation Lab.

Continuing trend of collaboration

This Google/Sanofi collaboration is the latest example of a continuing trend of collaborations and partnerships between large pharma and tech companies, particularly in relation to the research and development process and data analytics.

Earlier this month, Atomwise announced a collaboration with Eli Lilly to use AI in pre-clinical drug discovery, aiming to accelerate drug identification and development and covering up to ten drug targets selected by Eli Lilly.

Last month, Verily (Alphabet’s life sciences division) announced strategic alliances with Novartis, Otsuka, Pfizer and Sanofi to improve clinical research through use of its Baseline platform. The platform is designed to engage more clinicians and patients in the clinical research process, as well as making it faster and easier to conduct studies.

Speeding up R&D and increasing industry competition

It has long been the case that there is a huge time lag between investment and returns in the pharmaceutical industry. The research and development process is both time consuming and costly, as is compliance with the complex legal and regulatory framework. Any technology that can reduce the time, cost or uncertainty of drug development will be beneficial to big pharma and patients alike.

Whilst technology brings opportunities to big pharma, it also brings a risk of increased competition. If technology can make it easier to bring a drug to market, there may be a rise in new entrants. Traditionally, the drug development process has been a huge barrier to entry to the pharmaceutical industry. Although research start-ups are common, they are not normally a threat to (and are often acquired by) big pharma companies – this could change.

Perhaps more of a threat to big pharma is entry of the tech giants themselves, who have the ability to leverage both their data analytics capabilities and their wide market access. To be a direct threat, the tech giants would have to find ways to compete with the scientific R&D capabilities of the big pharma companies (such as through acquisitions). Instead, some tech companies may choose to focus on certain parts of the industry that do not require such capabilities (for example, product delivery or technology solutions for clinicians). Whichever strategy they choose, the tech giants will have to successfully navigate the challenges of operating in such a highly-regulated field in order to excel in this space.

Data analytics and the rise of personalised medicine

AI, apps and wearables now allow the collection and analysis of a much wider range of patient data. For example, the Apple Watch now has an electrocardiogram app and an irregular heart rhythm notification feature. Such data could be used, not only to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of individuals, but also to inform cardiovascular research more generally. However, as in any industry, huge amounts of data are only useful if they can be effectively analysed.

The Google/Sanofi collaboration has a focus on using data analytics to develop personalised approaches to treatment. The mass of patient data now available for collection and analysis is likely to push most treatment in this direction. To get the best insights from their data and to enable the development of tailored treatments, pharma companies have a choice – partner with tech companies or build stronger data analytics capabilities themselves.

A changing risk profile

It is clear that technology presents tremendous opportunities for the pharmaceutical industry at all stages of the drug life cycle, but these opportunities come with increased risk – particularly in the areas of cybersecurity and data protection.

With this in mind, it is extremely important for pharma companies to guard against the increased risks from their use and reliance on technology. Patient safety, contingency planning and data security measures must remain at the forefront of all technology initiatives and collaborations.