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by
September 7, 2022
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Pharma & Digital Health Partnerships – What are the Options?

1. Sponsorship / Licensing a Solution

A pharma company sponsors or licenses an existing solution, e.g. imagine an existing app to support chronic pain patients. A pharma company could make this available to patients being treated with their drug to offer additional support.

Real-world example: Sanofi ran a pilot to offer access to an online gastrointestinal symptom checker from Babylon, and sponsored 400 free video consultations on the platform.  

Benefits

  • Usually a relatively fast and relatively low-cost entry into the DTx space.
  • It can work as a flexible short-term solution.

Considerations

  • Limited or zero configuration options means it is unlikely to precisely meet a brand’s needs.
  • It still needs due diligence and internal approval to ensure the solution is compliant.
  • Even if the length of commitment is short, the patients may find the app valuable and resent it being removed.

2. Partnering with a DTx Company

This is by far the most popular option currently, where the clinical expertise of a pharma company intersects with the technical expertise of a DTx company.  

Real-world example: Eli Lilly has partnered with Sidekick Health on an integrated digital therapeutic to improve the wellbeing of people being treated for breast cancer in Germany.

Benefits

  • Combines the complementary expertise of pharma and tech partners.
  • Usually faster as the technical platform and processes to support the DTx are often readily available; also may include product approvals and an existing user base.  
  • Often scope for pharma to configure the solution to suit their needs.

Considerations

  • Shared culture, vision, and goals essential for partners to enjoy a successful relationship.
  • Many platforms are fully customizable to pharma’s needs, but prior to partnering it should be confirmed there are no restrictions to tailoring the solution.
  • There is a need to ensure a cohesive go-to-market strategy. Pharma’s sales channels have been fine-tuned to sell drugs, but not necessarily digital products.

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3. Buying an Existing Solution

This is a less common path for pharma companies but there are examples, particularly when the digital solution has a good strategic fit with the business, across one important or multiple therapy areas.  

Real-world example: Pfizer is in the process of purchasing Resapp Health. Resapp has recently gained FDA approval for a prescription digital therapy for sleep apnea. Pfizer has a sizeable respiratory franchise, so this appears to be a good strategic fit.

Benefits

  • The product is ‘ready to go’ and may already have approved indications and an active user base.  
  • Ownership means that the pharma company will have more influence on strategy and future direction.
  • The company will keep all profits as there is no need to share with a partner or to pay licensing fees.

Considerations

  • A product that is a good strategic fit for your needs may not exist.
  • The acquired product may still require some configuration to suit the business and market needs.
  • Often requires a large investment which is potentially risky if not aligned with longer term business objectives.
  • Due diligence and internal approval steps still apply.
Five pharma and digital health partnership models

4. Build Your Own Solution

This is also an uncommon path for pharma companies usually due to complexity, lack of expertise, and time to market to create their own proprietary solution.

Real-world example: AstraZeneca created the Amaze platform which includes programs to help patients manage chronic diseases and keep in touch with their physicians. They recently sold the platform to Huma, and will partner with them closely going forward.

Benefits

  • Full control over the solution design, content, features, and overall strategy.  
  • Importantly, the pharma company has full control over the user experience.
  • If the solution is successful, the company gets to keep all the profits.

Considerations

  • Likely will be very slow, building from scratch with slow internal pharma approval processes.
  • Fully responsible for all aspects of development and commercialization including data privacy, regulatory approvals, and reimbursement.
  • Even without a partner, will very likely need expertise from consultants and key stakeholders including patients and physicians.
  • Will need to acquire a user base.  

5. Creating an Innovation Hub

A pharma company could invest in their own DTx innovation hub. The actual DTx products and solutions they launch could be a combination of any of the previous four options, but building an owned innovation hub can help create strategic alignment, consistency, and economies of scale.

Real-world example: Boehringer has a global digital innovation lab called BIX, where there is a strong focus on digital product development and partnering.

Benefits

  • Allows a consistent strategic approach across the business.
  • Potential benefits of scale, i.e., creating a core solution and rolling out across multiple franchise areas with appropriate customization.    
  • Also allows a consistent approach to data management, privacy, and compliance.

Considerations

  • Heavy investment involves the creation of an entirely new business unit.
  • Effort required to integrate the innovation hub with the needs of the individual product teams, to ensure it does not become an independent ‘silo’.

The second approach: partnering with a DTx company is currently favored by pharma and digital health companies alike. This makes sense as it hits the sweet spot of combining a DTx company’s technical smarts and expertise in commercializing digital products with a pharma company’s in-depth clinical and stakeholder understanding.  

However, as pharma companies become more experienced in this area, we may see them venturing more into 3. Buying and 4. Building their own solutions.

Whatever happens it is a fascinating space to watch!

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About the author

Gary Monk

Digital health thought leader, writer, and speaker.

See all articles by this author
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