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Pfizer: Pharma needs a business strategy for a digital world

The unprecedented rate of digital acceleration seen in the first two years of COVID-19 has set in train
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The unprecedented rate of digital acceleration seen in the first two years of COVID-19 has set in train an age of digital transformation.

In my last article, I outlined the inflection point facing the pharmaceutical industry in digital health and the digital transformation of its clinical and commercial operations. This time I’m going to focus on one company and its view on pharma’s digital commercial strategy.

After an initial, and very necessary, frenetic response to the global pandemic, changes within pharma’s commercial organisations have yet to entirely settle, but there are many signs of new and future directions.

One of the firms setting out its vision for our digital future is Pfizer. Its chief digital and technology officer Lidia Fonseca offered a fascinating insight into how one biggest pharmaceutical companies – and one of those most closely associated with the pandemic (alongside the likes of BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca) – has been transforming itself.

Digital fluency and change

Looking back now, the rate of change still astounds. Way back in January 2020, Pfizer’s 2019 annual report could only note the potential disruption from a novel strain of coronavirus. So much was then unknown about it that the only sure thing about the outbreak was the high level of uncertainty about its effects.

In March 2020 Pfizer began collaborating with BioNTech on a vaccine for COVID-19 and 269 days later it received emergency use authorisation from the FDA. Within a year of that milestone more than three billion doses of Comirnaty had been produced.

That pace was mirrored in the digital realm across companies, therapeutic specialities, and society at large.

“The pandemic served as a catalyst, forging an increased digital fluency and receptivity to engaging virtually and we’re seeing this from patients to healthcare providers to regulators,” Fonseca said. “Increasingly, we’re moving from a traditional physician office setting to virtual engagement and more payers are reimbursing for digital services.”

She was explaining her company’s digital vision, strategy, and priorities at the Truist Securities AI Symposium in March.

It was a talk that took in how new tech entrants into healthcare like Amazon, Apple, Verily, and Microsoft “are helping to spark innovation” and how the increased pace in the sector has been driven by the need to apply pre-existing technologies at scale.

“What I see across the industry is that a digital mindset is now at the forefront of healthcare.”

Outlining the company’s “digital transformation journey” that began in 2019, she said “we are leveraging digital, data, and technology to drive innovation across our entire value chain”.

“One of the biggest changes we’ve seen is the way we’re engaging with customers, including health care professionals and patients. With in-person visits to doctors’ offices dramatically reduced during the pandemic, our commercial reps quickly transitioned to video and audio meetings to keep these vital interactions going virtually. And along with virtual engagement, we accelerated the launch of our Digital Rep Advisor.”

The Advisor tool uses AI and machine learning to provide field force decision support to make interactions with physicians more impactful by recommending the next best action for the company’s sales reps to take.

Fonseca joined Pfizer in 2019, bringing more than 20 years of healthcare experience from companies such as Quest Diagnostics, Labcorp and Philips Healthcare, and arriving with a mission to accelerate and improve Pfizer’s digital capabilities.

Exponential digital transformation

Looking at what the recent tumultuous years will mean for the healthcare sector, she told the Truist Securities audience: “Transformation … will continue to accelerate exponentially, particularly at the intersection of healthcare and digital. In the next 5 to 10 years, I expect that future generations of patients and customers will expect an end-to-end, personalized real-time digital health experience, directly from mobile devices and the latest wearable technology. My point of view is that pharma as well as other key players in the health care ecosystem will need to work together to provide that experience.

“In the commercial and medical space, digital medicines and digital health will become more of the norm, supplementing traditional treatment methods and applying therapies to create even greater value for patients, all of which improve the patient experience and drive patient adherence to treatment.

“Now two years into the pandemic, we’re taking – we’re thinking ahead, how we can continue reimagining our engagement model. Ultimately, it’s about meeting people where they want to be met and allowing for more agile, interactive, personalised and informed engagement. Customer expectations are rapidly evolving, and we believe that leaning into these changes is necessary to create a competitive edge in the future.

Fonseca concluded: “Rather than create a digital strategy for your business, we should be creating a business strategy for a digital world.”

About the author

Dominic Tyer is a research director at DT Consulting, an Indegene company. He has more than 20 years of pharmaceutical business research and publishing experience at leading industry titles and is an influential author on the digital transformation of the healthcare sector.

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Government

Sheila Ochugboju named Executive Director of Alliance for Science

Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is pleased to welcome Sheila Ochugboju as the new Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AfS), a global communications…

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Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is pleased to welcome Sheila Ochugboju as the new Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AfS), a global communications initiative dedicated to promoting access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally. Her start date is June 1.

Credit: Image provided/Sheila Ochugboju

Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is pleased to welcome Sheila Ochugboju as the new Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AfS), a global communications initiative dedicated to promoting access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally. Her start date is June 1.

“We are delighted that Dr. Ochugboju will soon be joining us,” said BTI President David Stern. “The Alliance plays a vital role in connecting a range of stakeholders with up-to-date and vital information about how scientific advances can contribute to the future of the planet’s health, an effort that aligns perfectly with BTI’s mission to advance and communicate scientific discovery in plant biology to improve agriculture, protect the environment, and enhance human health.”

“We are fortunate to have someone with Sheila’s experience, connections and vision in this role,” Stern added.

Ochugboju is a leader in science communication and has been a global advocate for science technology and innovation for more than 20 years. She was most recently the Head of Strategic Communications at the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), supporting vaccine delivery communication across Africa and advocating for vaccine equity.

She is also a founding member of the Network of African Women Environmentalists (NAWE), leading in the development of flagship initiatives and products such as the Earth Science Cafes, The Youth Earth Guardians and Landscape Mentors network and the Earth Reflections Podcast, which was rated amongst the leading environment podcasts in Africa in 2020.

“I am excited to join the Boyce Thompson Institute, because together with the Alliance for Science we can offer new lenses, tools, and partnerships to transform how the world understands the role of science in addressing global challenges,” said Ochugboju. “The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and now food security challenges are teaching everyone that good science communication can literally save lives and livelihoods.”

Founded in 2014, AfS is a global communications initiative that seeks to counter misinformation about agricultural biotechnology, climate change, nuclear power, vaccines, COVID-19 and other contemporary science issues.

To support its work, the Alliance relies on a global network of about 14,000 science allies who engage in their local communities to advance science-based policies. AfS has trained more than 900 science champions, including scientists, farmers, journalists, healthcare professionals and students, in 48 countries to communicate effectively about biotechnology.

“After a comprehensive executive search, we are thrilled to have found someone like Dr. Ochugboju, who has the knowledge and ability to broaden the horizon of the Alliance for Science and bring resources to counter misinformation across a more substantial expanse of scientific endeavor, especially including climate change,” said Ronnie Coffman, Professor of Global Development at Cornell University and Interim Director of AfS.  

Ochugboju graduated with a degree in Medical Biochemistry and then received her Ph.D. in Plant Biochemistry from Royal Holloway, University of London in 1996. She was awarded the Daphne Jackson Trust Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship, based at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, St. Hilda’s College, University of Oxford in 1998.

She has lived and worked in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. In 2016, she received a WINGS WorldQuest Women of Discovery Award for developing and leading pioneering African science, technology and innovation projects. Ochugboju was also appointed as a Global Roving Ambassador for the county government of Kisumu, Kenya, in charge of the portfolio for Transformative Science and Urban Resilience.

About Boyce Thompson Institute:

Opened in 1924, Boyce Thompson Institute is a premier life sciences research institution located in Ithaca, New York. BTI scientists conduct investigations into fundamental plant and life sciences research with the goals of increasing food security, improving environmental sustainability in agriculture, and making basic discoveries that will enhance human health. Throughout this work, BTI is committed to inspiring and educating students and to providing advanced training for the next generation of scientists. BTI is an independent nonprofit research institute that is also affiliated with Cornell University. For more information, please visit BTIscience.org.

 

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Spread & Containment

Lab, crab and robotic rehab

I was in Berkeley a couple of months back, helping TechCrunch get its proverbial ducks in a row before our first big climate event (coming in a few weeks,…

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I got previews of a number of projects I hope to share with you in the newsletter soon, but one that really caught my eye was FogROS, which was just announced as part of the latest ROS (robot operating system) rollout. Beyond a punny name that is simultaneously a reference to the cloud element (fog/cloud — not to mention the fact that the new department has killer views of San Francisco and frequent visitor, Karl) and problematic French cuisine, there’s some really compelling potential here.

I’ve been thinking about the potential impact of cloud-based processing quite a bit the last several years, independent of my writing about robots. Specifically, a number of companies (Microsoft, Amazon, Google) have been betting big on cloud gaming. What do you do when you’ve seemingly pushed a piece of hardware to its limit? If you’ve got low enough latency, you can harness remote servers to do the heavy lifting. It’s something that’s been tried for at least a decade, to varying effect.

Image Credits: ROS

Latency is, of course, a major factor in gaming, where being off by a millisecond can dramatically impact the experience. I’m not fully convinced that experience is where it ought to be quite yet, but it does seem the tech has graduated to a point where off-board processing makes practical sense for robotics. You can currently play a console game on a smartphone with one of those services, so surely we can produce smaller, lighter-weight and lower-cost robots that rely on a remote server to complete resource-intensive tasks like SLAM processing.

The initial application will focus on AWS, with plans to reach additional services like Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. Watch this space. There are many reasons to be excited. Honestly, there’s a lot to be excited about in robotics generally right now. This was one of the more fun weeks in recent memory.

V Bionic's exoskeleton glove shown without its covering.

Image Credits: V Bionic

Let’s start with the ExoHeal robotic rehabilitation gloves. The device, created by Saudi Arabian V Bionic, nabbed this year’s Microsoft Imagine Cup. The early-stage team is part of a proud tradition of healthcare exoskeletons. In this case, it’s an attempt to rehab the hand following muscle and tendon injuries. Team leader Zain Samdani told TechCrunch:

Flexor linkage-driven movement gives us the flexibility to individually actuate different parts of each finger (phalanges) whilst keeping the device portable. We’re currently developing our production-ready prototype that utilizes a modular design to fit the hand sizes of different patients.

Image Credits: Walmart

This is the third week in a row Walmart gets a mention here. First it was funding for GreyOrange, which it partnered with in Canada. Last week we noted a big expansion of the retail giant’s deal with warehouse automation firm, Symbotic. Now it’s another big expansion of an existing deal — this time dealing with the company’s delivery ambitions.

Like Walmart’s work with robotics, drone delivery success has been…spotty, at best. Still, it’s apparently ready to put its money where its mouth is on this one, with a deal that brings DroneUp delivery to 34 sites across six U.S. states. Quoting myself here:

The retailer announced an investment in the 6-year-old startup late last year, following trial deliveries of COVID-19 testing kits. Early trials were conducted in Bentonville, Arkansas. This year, Arizona, Florida, Texas and DroneUp’s native Virginia are being added to the list. Once online, customers will be able to choose from tens of thousands of products, from Tylenol to hot dog buns, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Freigegeben für die Berichterstattung über das Unternehemn Wingcopter bis zum 25.01.2026. Mit Bitte um Urhebervermerk v.l.: Jonathan Hesselbarth, Tom Plümmer und Ansgar Kadura von Wingcopter GmbH. Image Credits: © Jonas Wresch / KfW

There are still more question marks around this stuff than anything, and I’ve long contended that drone delivery makes the most sense in remote and otherwise hard to reach areas. That’s why something like this Wingcopter deal is interesting. Over the next five years, the company plans to bring 12,000 of its fixed-wing UAVs to 49 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. It will cover spots that have traditionally struggled with infrastructural issues that have made it difficult to deliver food and medical supplies through more traditional means.

“With the looming food crisis on the African continent triggered by the war in Ukraine, we see great potential and strong social impact that drone-delivery networks can bring to people in all the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa by getting food to where it is needed most,” CEO Tom Plümmer told TechCrunch. “Especially in remote areas with weak infrastructure and those areas that are additionally affected by droughts and other plagues, Wingcopter’s delivery drones will build an air bridge and provide food from the sky on a winch to exactly where it is needed.”

Legitimately exciting stuff, that.

Image Credits: Dyson

In more cautiously optimistic news, Dyson dropped some interesting news this week, announcing that it has been (and will continue) pumping a lot of money into robotic research. Part of the rollout includes refitting an aircraft hangar at Hullavington Airfield, a former RAF station in Chippenham, Wiltshire, England that the company purchased back in 2016.

Some numbers from the company:

Dyson is halfway through the largest engineering recruitment drive in its history. Two thousand people have joined the tech company this year, of which 50% are engineers, scientists, and coders. Dyson is supercharging its robotics ambitions, recruiting 250 robotics engineers across disciplines including computer vision, machine learning, sensors and mechatronics, and expects to hire 700 more in the robotics field over the next five years. The master plan: to create the UK’s largest, most advanced, robotics center at Hullavington Airfield and to bring the technology into our homes by the end of the decade.

The primary project highlighted is a robot arm with a number of attachments, including a vacuum and a human-like robot hand, which are designed to perform various household tasks. Dyson has some experience building robots, primarily through its vacuums, which rely on things like computer vision to autonomously navigate. Still, I say “cautiously optimistic,” because I’ve seen plenty of non-robotics companies showcase the technology as more of a vanity project. But I’m more than happy to have Dyson change my mind.

Image Credits: Hyundai

Hyundai, of course, has been quite aggressive in its own robotics dreams, including its 2020 acquisition of Boston Dynamics. The carmaker this week announced that part of its massive new $10 billion investment plans will include robotics, with a focus of actually bringing some of its far-out concepts to market.

Another week, another big round for logistics/fulfillment robotics, as Polish firm Nomagic raised $22 million to expand its offerings. The company’s primary offering is a pick and place arm that can move and sort small goods. Khosla Ventures and Almaz Capital led the round, which also featured European Investment Bank, Hoxton Ventures, Capnamic Ventures, DN Capital and Manta Ray.

Amazon Astro with periscope camera

The periscope camera pops out and extends telescopically, enabling Astro to look over obstacles and on counter tops. A very elegant design choice. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

We finally got around to reviewing Amazon’s limited-edition home robot, Astro, and Haje’s feelings were…mixed:

It’s been fun to have Astro wandering about my apartment for a few days, and most of the time I seemed to use it as a roving boom box that also has Alexa capabilities. That’s cute, and all, but $1,000 would buy Alexa devices for every thinkable surface in my room and leave me with enough cash left over to cover the house in cameras. I simply continue to struggle with why Astro makes sense. But then, that’s true for any product that is trying to carve out a brand new product category.

A tiny robot crab scuttles across the frame. Image Credits: Northwestern University

And finally, a tiny robot crab from Northwestern University. The little guy can be controlled remotely using lasers and is small enough to sit on the side of a penny. “Our technology enables a variety of controlled motion modalities and can walk with an average speed of half its body length per second,” says lead researcher, Yonggang Huang. “This is very challenging to achieve at such small scales for terrestrial robots.”

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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Economics

Pandemic-related stressors in pregnant women may impact their babies before they’re born

Prolonged levels of stress and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to altering key features of fetal brain development — even if the…

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Prolonged levels of stress and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to altering key features of fetal brain development — even if the mother was not infected by the virus. This is what a study published in Communications Medicine suggests after following more than 200 pregnant women. The study, led by Children’s National Hospital experts, emphasized the need for more scientific inquiry to shed light on the long-term neurodevelopmental consequences of their findings and COVID-19 exposures on fetal brain development.

Credit: Children’s National Hospital

Prolonged levels of stress and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to altering key features of fetal brain development — even if the mother was not infected by the virus. This is what a study published in Communications Medicine suggests after following more than 200 pregnant women. The study, led by Children’s National Hospital experts, emphasized the need for more scientific inquiry to shed light on the long-term neurodevelopmental consequences of their findings and COVID-19 exposures on fetal brain development.

“Understanding how contemporary stressors may influence fetal brain development during pregnancy has major implications for basic science and informing public policy initiatives,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., chief and director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National and senior author of the study. “With this work, we are able to show there’s a problem, it’s happening prenatally, and we can use this model to start exploring how we can reduce stress in moms and support unborn babies.”

To better understand the effects of environmental exposures on the fetus during pregnancy, further confirmation of the team’s latest findings is needed by ruling out other possibilities, such as maternal nutrition, financial security and genetic factors.

The psychosocial impact of COVID-19 on fetal brain development remains vastly understudied. The neurologic underpinnings of fetal development that turn into psycho-behavioral disorders later in life, including bipolar disorder, mood disorder or anxiety disorder, remain complex and difficult to explain.

Among the 202 participants from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, 137 were part of the pre-pandemic cohort and 65 were part of the pandemic cohort.

Through advanced MRI imaging techniques and reconstruction of high-resolution 3D brain models, the researchers found a reduction of fetal white matter, hippocampal and cerebellar volumes and delayed brain gyrification in COVID-19 pandemic-era pregnancies. Validated maternal stress, anxiety and depression scales were also used to compare the scores between the two cohorts.

This study builds upon previous work from the Developing Brain Institute led by Limperopoulos, which discovered that anxiety in pregnant women appears to affect the brain development of their babies. Her team also found that maternal mental health, even in high socioeconomic status, alters the structure and biochemistry of the developing fetal brain, emphasizing the importance of mental health support for pregnant women.

“We’re looking at modifiable conditions,” said Limperopoulos. “What’s clear is the next frontier is intervening early to see how we can prevent or reduce stress in the mom’s current setting.”


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