Eugene Borukhovich on the digital transformation of pharma and why startups need to find their champion
If you work in digital health, you most probably know Eugene. He is a serial intra and entrepreneur, executive, venture builder, speaker & board advisor in digital health and he is hosting the DTx edition of the Digital Health Today podcast. While as former Global Head of Bayer G4A he was shaping the digital health ecosystem from within the pharma industry, today he is making an impact by advising digital health startups and initiatives while building YourCoach.Health with his wife Marina.
You have focused for years on driving the digital transformation of the pharmaceutical industry from within – challenging the existing and setting new impulses. Can you shed some light on whether beyond-the-pill services, AI-powered drug discovery or digital-enabled real-world evidence are actually on the daily agenda of pharma executives or simply nice-sounding buzzwords one can drop at conference talks?
Let’s break this down, because all of them are indeed on the agenda, however, the focus and priority lie differently. If you’re a CEO of a big pharma company, selling pills is your core business. Therefore, everything helping you to create new and better pills – like AI-powered drug discovery aims to do – should be and in many cases is on your top priority list.
When looking at digital-enabled real-world evidence: It’s absolutely on the roadmap. Many pharma executives are talking about it and actually dig into the topic to get a better understanding. However, I think there are still some challenges left including understanding what implementing digital real-world evidence actually means, from an operational perspective and partnership perspective.
It’s a similar story for beyond-the-pill services. When I first started at big pharma years ago, I went to a conference and discussed that topic on a panel saying that there is a simple reason the pharmaceutical industry is talking about “beyond the pill” for literally decades. The reason that it’s still not there is that the word pill is actually anchored in it. And selling pills is still the core of all pharma brands and culture.
In your newsletter, you once stated the pressure on pharma to push digital transformation seems rather low. Conventional drugs still produce high margins, there is a strong pipeline of new biological modalities (like mRNA) and digital healthcare is a relatively wild, wild west, with little signs of getting dangerous for big pharma brands. Why should industry whales even bother with digital transformation?
Digital transformation means so many different things, to different people.
In the end, digital transformation is just one of many means to improve the core business of pharma: Bringing the cost of developing drugs down and get them to patients as quickly as possible while making sure they actually have an impact, especially when we’re talking about rare diseases. If I remember correctly, for more than 90% of diseases, there is no FDA-approved treatment. Digital transformation can help to build up new skills that will help to change this.
When writing my newsletter post on the topic of digital transformation I was purposely trying to be provocative. Of course, there are problems with this change due to different silo effects of big corporates, too many chefs in the kitchen trying to improve a dish and lack of incentives across the organization to really drive the efficiencies digital can offer. However, the importance of initiating the change is clear to all executives, it just takes a long time to get through the clay layer of an organization
Yes, margins are still strong in the pharmaceutical industry but I do believe diversification is absolutely needed, even beyond biological breakthroughs in molecules. This was my day-to-day job back at big pharma. And I’m still keeping an eye on digital therapeutics, especially in neurodegenerative diseases, where pharma has struggled to find the right molecules that help patients and individuals.
What impact can pharma cooperation with startups have on this transformation?
Pharma cooperation with startups has been around for some time. My thesis has continually been that there is always an entrepreneur somewhere in the world, working on a certain challenge that a particular organization or an industry has. The reason why pharma and startups like to work together is simple: Pharma likes to work with startups that solve their problems fast while entrepreneurs enjoy the deep pockets, clinical expertise, and market access of the industry giants.
But there is one thing that is important to understand for entrepreneurs: As a pharma company, I am not necessarily going to look at those 20-Million-Dollar-Stand-Alone-Businesses – my keen interest lies in augmenting and or defending my current molecular portfolio. Don’t get me wrong, those can be healthy and good businesses, but from a pharma perspective, those businesses are probably not going to drive the return on investment that pharma is looking for in a certain timeframe.
Only a few initiatives have made it into commercial practice yet. Founders in the startup community are frustrated as pharma built up a reputation of partnering for marketing reasons, rather than to launch meaningful initiatives. Is there a secret on how to partner successfully with pharma?
There are no secrets. Getting into pharma simply takes a lot of groundwork. I always tell startups about the importance of knowing your champion, somebody who will carry you through the process and make the right introductions. People work with people. Your focus should not be on winning over a pharma company. It’s about getting individuals on board that are willing to champion you through, that understand the larger vision that you’re working on, and how your business can benefit them. As an entrepreneur, you need to understand the strategic areas of a particular company you are targeting. Figure out who drives those topics forward, look for the leadership. And you need to understand where their alignment lies and how their budgets are decided upon.
Getting there requires a lot of groundwork. Help the champions you are working with to come up with business cases centered around your value proposition, help them to figure out how they can bring certain products to market. And I think a major part is just educating. Educating your champion and their peers and educating, educating, educating, and being again persistent, persistent, persistent.
The best way to do that is knowing yourself and knowing how you fit in the priorities of your champion and the whole organization, but unfortunately, there is no magic bullet for quick wins.
On a more personal note: Once you said you hope that in 2030 more than eight and a half billion people on our planet understand what drives their bodies, what makes them healthy. With YourCoach.Health you are driving awareness for this topic by making personal health coaching more accessible. Have you already figured out what drives your body? If yes, how?
Indeed it’s a bold goal. We are on our way to getting there with now over 1700 coaches on the platform and counting!
The point of a health coach is not only focused on understanding how your body works. It’s more about helping you to understand your personal health and performance goals on the one hand, and on the other – probably more importantly – to keep you on track, even though you are ultimately accountable.
And while I think every one of us knows more or less why their body makes them feel good, bad or indifferent – this can be due to lack of sleep or overeating or under eating and so on -, we all need a companion on our journey. In many cases, this is not going to be an AI chatbot. So at YourCoach.Health we are on our way to make sure you have a trusted health & wellness coach on your side. We have grown tremendously and are still discovering new things while fine-tuning our business model, but more importantly: We are having a lot of fun doing it as we are discovering what it really takes to continue hacking our bodies to health and performance.