Alliance Management in the Evolving World of Digital Health

Posted By: Michael Burke BioPharma Conference , Member Resources ,
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Digital therapeutics, devices, and digital health generally form a cutting-edge “new frontier” for the biopharma universe—and an opportunity for biopharma alliance management. The evolving nature of these technologies—and the role of partnering around them—will be the subject of a keynote address at the ASAP BioPharma Conference to be held in Boston Sept. 28–30, 2022.

Alex Waldron, CEO of Wellinks, and a biopharma veteran of various roles at Pear Therapeutics, Biogen, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and elsewhere, will speak on “Democratizing Patient Care Through Digital and Virtual-First Care Solutions.” This is the second time Waldron will have addressed ASAP audiences, as he presented at the 2019 BioPharma Conference’s Leadership Forum, also on the topic of digital health. This year’s main-stage keynote will reach a wider audience, which is good, since Waldron agreed with the notion that if any biopharma alliance managers out there are not yet managing collaborations with digital startups or other companies in the space, they soon will be.

Digital No Longer Sits at the Kids’ Table

Pharma companies have often looked to smaller pharma, biotechs, device companies, and increasingly tech startups for innovation. That’s not particularly new—but the ways in which these entities are working together are changing, according to Waldron.

“Historically, if you were an alliance manager with a larger organization, and you were working with a smaller company that was doing innovating, you would put the small company at the small table and the big company at the big table, and the big company would look at the small table and think they were wonderfully cute and nicely seated in their chairs, so they can stay right there, thank you very much,” Waldron explained.

“‘We will either listen, to or pretend to listen to the opinion that you have, because we’re typically running things.’ In a world of biotech and startup pharma, that is still the way I think most relationships are—there’s a variation on a theme. In the world of digital, with alliance managers, that’s going to be quite different.”

The reasons? Reason one, Waldron said, is relatively straightforward: folks at pharma companies don’t write code and are not focused on the regulatory and data security parts of digital health—it’s not their core competency. Developing molecules and proteins into medicines is. But there’s more.

“Reason two, these digital health products are going to evolve. In the big table/small table comparison, when you licensed an asset and threw that molecule over the fence to a larger biopharma partner, the ‘big company’ would effectively run the show and take control of the asset. There might be a slight indication variation to the asset over time or new safety data would pop up, but the molecule or protein was the same molecule or protein that had been licensed from the startup company. In the world of digital health, these products are perpetually evolving. And it is not the role of the pharmaceutical or biotech company to maintain, to collect, or to evolve those products over a period of time to benefit the partnership that they have in place.”

Sight Lines Across the Silos

That has implications for the biopharma companies, for the digital startups, for alliance management, and for everyone involved.

“Healthcare is very much evolving,” Waldron said. “From an alliance management perspective, because these products are able to evolve across multi-development areas within larger organizations, it’s going to require a different operation as well.

“That significantly changes the way you have to work with that alliance [and] with that partner, but it also changes massively the way the larger organization works across development, clinical, and commercial teams. That’s a very, very different role within alliance management. The way the playbook has been played by alliance managers in these very large organizations historically has been very straightforward. Their roles [now] have to change quite considerably in terms of who they need to interact with within their own organizations. So it’s going to take a lot more nimbleness on the part of the alliance management to be able to do that.”

The Spark of Digital Innovation

Waldron sees the profusion and importance of digital health solutions as crying out for more partnering across these industries, rather than pharma companies’ trying to develop digital capabilities on their own.

“The compulsion of pharma or biotech has historically been to build up new skill sets internally that have led to the development  of very large organizations to support those new skill sets in businesses,” he said. “I would actually challenge large biopharma companies that in the case of digital health capabilities that’s not the right thing to do. Because the level of nimbleness that a small, entrepreneurial, sparky digital health company has to have to continually evolve healthcare software—regulating software, even pharmacovigilance of that software at the end of the day—the big company doesn’t have and shouldn’t have that skill set. That is better left to their digital health partner.  

“The other thing alliance managers need to be able to do is keep everyone focused [on] the best way to maximize what their company’s role is within a partnership versus the digital health company’s role as partner. It’s really good to have very strong partnerships in place and not try to reinvent that wheel or bring everything in house again.”

So partnering will be needed, perhaps more than in the past. But not just any partnering, according to Waldron.

“It’s going to require active partnering—not just partnering that’s reactive, or unidirectional; it has to be bidirectional partnering to be able to maximize this,” he emphasized. “It’s a very different amplitude from what it’s been before.”

Digital Democracy

And what about the democratization of patient care noted in the title of his keynote? Waldron said it’s actually one of the positive byproducts of the Covid pandemic. Where some diseases and conditions can be treated chemically and biologically—with a pill or an injection, for example—others require clinical behavior modification as well, and an ongoing treatment management plan that helps patients make the behavioral and lifestyle changes needed. These conditions include depression, for example—which Waldron noted increased markedly during Covid—as well as many chronic diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which Wellinks’ virtual management system is designed to address.

“If you are a patient with COPD, you might be discharged from the hospital with various therapeutic products that help your body breathe better, chemically or biologically, but you can’t learn to change your lifestyle and manage your disease,” Waldron explained. “You can’t learn to do the intervention that’s required in terms of the socialization skills. You can’t do the virtual pulmonary rehabilitation that we’re able to provide at Wellinks to be able to change those behavioral components.

“During Covid we learned that if you could not get physically into a doctor’s office to be seen, you could be seen virtually and manage your disease remotely.  This led to a massive adoption by physicians and by patients of the utilization of digital tools to better manage the diseases. You’ve democratized the ability to care [for] and manage your disease [in a way] that never happened before.”

That too has implications for biopharma alliance management, which Waldron will discuss in his talk.

“Biopharmaceutical alliance managers are absolutely going to be seeing more and more adoption, utilization, and partnering [in digital health] because it extends the portfolio that companies have within a certain disease state, it extends the number of mechanisms of action that they have to treat diseases and help improve outcomes clinically and economically for these patients, and I think pharma is absolutely moving in [that] direction. They are just waiting for this to come into play. I don’t think anyone’s saying, ‘Will it?’ Everyone’s thinking about when will it, how will it, and how does it get paid?”

More great insights from Waldron and many other presenters will be there for the taking at the 2022 ASAP BioPharma Conference—which is almost here! The conference will be held Sept. 28–30 in Boston. For more information and to register, go to asapbiopharma.org.