In case you haven’t heard, the 2022 ASAP BioPharma Conference has already broken all-time records for attendance. The Hyatt Regency Boston’s meeting spaces are bursting at the seams today, as folks were packed into the ballroom for the opening and first keynote address, with people overflowing into secondary rooms and foyer spaces.
It’s a much-needed and well-deserved dose of buzz and hubbub for over 250 alliance professionals from all corners of the biopharma universe who are coming back together once again after three long Covid-plagued years of virtual conferences. As in the past, it’s been a great chance for partners, colleagues, peers, and pals to renew acquaintance in person—and for the scores of first-time attendees to get steeped in the experience and soak up all the learning and knowledge exchange that goes on.
These elements, along with the coffee conversations, networking noodles, and lunchtime laughter, are all hallowed hallmarks of ASAP conferences in general and this one in particular. In fact this marks the 17th ASAP BioPharma Conference, as ASAP President and CEO Michael Leonetti, CSAP, noted in his “big fat welcome” to everyone, veterans and fresh faces alike, as the conference opened bright and early this morning.
Here Comes Everybody
Why do we have these events? And why does ASAP exist? Why is it needed perhaps now more than ever? Leonetti had a succinct answer: “Because everybody’s partnering—and it’s not easy to do!”
By “everybody,” Leonetti did mean everybody. That includes, naturally, pharma companies, biotechs, academia, vendors and suppliers, and all those who make up the growing biopharma ecosystem. And now crashing the party are a number of tech companies, startups, AI purveyors, and perhaps most significantly, digital health companies.
This is where a good bit of the latest action is in partnering, and it’s a sign of where things are going and what's to come. That was just one of the takeaways from the first keynote address, given by Alex Waldron, CEO of Wellinks and a biopharma veteran—“I went from a pharmaceutical guy to a biotech guy”—who worked in the past at Pear Therapeutics, BMS, Pfizer, Genzyme, and Biogen, among other notable outfits. ("I'm super old," Waldron joked, while Leonetti mentioned in his introduction that while at Pear, Waldron and others achieved the first FDA approval of a prescription digital product.)
Waldron’s talk, “Democratizing Patient Care Through Digital and Virtual-First Care Solutions,” touched on the theme of how interconnected healthcare and technology have now rapidly become—greatly accelerated by the advent of Covid-19. Many companies are now working in this area and tackling it from different directions, with the common goal to “treat, care for, and manage disease differently and better,” according to Waldron.
After Trial by Covid, the Future Is Now
It's no longer a futuristic, “maybe someday” picture, either. “If your companies aren’t strongly investing in digital health, they will be,” Waldron added.
Digital health solutions actually complement pharmaceuticals and biologics, Waldron explained. “They literally change the way the brain operates,” forming a “1 + 1 = 3 solution that makes a big difference.”
This can be a huge factor in treatment and ongoing care for conditions like COPD, for which Wellinks provides a “virtual-first” solution. Once treated and discharged from a hospital with their prescribed medications, COPD patients can benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation and health coaching using an app and connected devices. It’s a personalized system that is integrated with both patient and provider.
The rise of digital and virtual capabilities, spurred on by Covid, has democratized and expanded the horizons of patient care possibilities, particularly for the elderly who can use their smart phones to manage their care from home, and for people in rural areas who might otherwise not have access to a doctor or healthcare facility.
Turn and Face the Change
Of course the big question on the minds of many in the BioPharma Conference audience was probably this one: “How is the alliance world likely to change due to digital health?”
There’s a couple of ways at least, according to Waldron. In the past, big pharma companies and smaller biotechs or startups would do a dance that looked like a Thanksgiving family gathering, with the pharma company at the big grownups’ table and the cute small startup at the smaller kids’ table.
That’s starting to change, as the pharma companies now badly need the technological expertise and know-how that are the digital health companies' forte. Moreover, Waldron noted that pharma companies typically have excelled at pushing drug products across four relatively siloed areas: discovery, translation, development, and commercialization. But in digital health, alliance managers will need to exercise “the superpower of actually working across all four of the siloes at the same time,” and under far shorter timelines—which is akin, Waldron said, to “flying the plane as you’re building the plane as you’re improving the plane over time.”
That continuous improvement turns out to be important too. Chemicals and proteins don’t evolve; software and firmware do. That has regulatory implications, but the FDA has responded with adaptive studies, in which digital health solutions can be changed somewhat as needed in midstream during clinical trials—something that would be “a horror” with a drug product.
Across the Great Divide
Pointing to the understatement that “partnering with a company in digital health is extremely different,” Waldron urged alliance professionals to work to “break down the barriers between groups” across the biopharma/digital divide. They can do this more effectively by:
- Becoming “champions of nonlinear evolutionary partnerships”
- Working across internal functional groups
- Fostering internal recognition of the constant evolution of digital assets
- Leading the charge on “unidirectional, active partnering”
“It’s very different from the playbook they’ve had in place for a long time,” Waldron said. “The change is coming, and it’s going to come much faster. If your companies are not yet doing this, they will. It’s a whole new world of personalized medicine, where the next layer is a digital overlay.”
The 2022 ASAP BioPharma Conference continues today and tomorrow. Keep checking the ASAP Blog for more coverage of the other great keynotes, panel discussions, and presentations.