The Intelligence Diaries - Pharmaceutical Executive

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The Intelligence Diaries
Here's your study guide to what the industry once knew—and lost.


Pharmaceutical Executive


Marker #5: Money, money, money... Thinning pipelines have placed a spotlight on Big Pharma's early pipeline. Before the mid-90s, companies never talked about early-stage programs. But the rise of the biotech industry and the increased focus on deal making have broadened the interest.

"Biotechs are very transparent in their early-stage programs, because that is their currency in financial markets," states Robert Gottlieb, a consultant and former editor of Pink Sheet. "It also allows them to showcase their science."

However, early-stage R&D programs hold the most risk, and the disclosure of these compounds' failure can lead to price swings and major market headaches. Bristol-Myers Squibb, for example, experienced this when, in 2000, it announced the negative side effects of Vanlev, an antihypertensive being touted as the company's next blockbuster. After more than 200 security fraud claims poured in, BMS withdrew the new drug application. Its stock quickly fell nearly 40 percent. The real and potent threats of such "ticking time bomb" lawsuits have spurred pharma firms to disclose more about their early-stage work—before the product's flaws are exposed late in the game and the market attacks.

Marker #6: The Internet and the rise of patient advocacy Patients have found their voice, and a Speaker's Corner on the Net where they can follow and influence trials. Case in point: Novartis had discovered Gleevec for chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). As the trials began their usual slow progression, Daniel Vasella, Novartis CEO, noticed something.

"Today's patients are a demanding lot," he wrote in the Magic Cancer Bullet. "They assert a right to decide and a right to the best treatment.... They are smarter than ever, discovering drugs at a very early stage of development, alerting their physicians to new drugs and therapies."

At one point, 42,000 messages appeared on a CML Listserv. Vasella acknowledges that patient activists used the Net to alter Gleevec's path, ultimately making it available to patients sooner than if they had waited for the usual trials.

Hitting the (Wrong) Mark

Given that most competitive intelligence teams are new, it seems strange that so many remain stuck, fixated on their traditional rivals. Mark Little of Covance, a global drug-development company, calls this "competitor myopia." "Too many professionals think their direct competitors are the only ones they are supposed to watch," says Little. "They need to look at all the threats—the payer, the technology, the supplier—before they set up their monitoring."

I recall one assignment that hinged on a competitive misconception. The stage was a war game we ran for a client's Asia-Pacific marketplace. The product was an antiviral drug they hoped would make inroads there. The drug had an excellent reputation in the West.

The client team focused on the usual pharmaceutical company rivals and their race to capture market share. But the real competition escaped their view—ancient Chinese herbal medicine. While everyone in the room knew that herbal medicines had no clinical trial evidence to support efficacy claims, it made no difference in the competitive landscape. The Chinese people believed in herbal remedies, and more than three-quarters of the market would rather drink an herbal potion than inject or swallow a tested pharmaceutical therapy.

Look around your healthcare niche and you will see other hidden-in-plain-sight threats (or opportunities). One example that many companies miss is nutraceuticals, which analysts peg to grow into a $15-billion-plus industry. Stuck in the old model of placing big bets on long-term clinial trials, intelligence programs may fail when they overlook new, more nimble entrants.

Finding the new markers If intelligence is about discovering the unexpected, where do you start looking?

It may sound surprising, but I have found job-posting sites a great way to see which entities are exploring an industry or therapeutic category. Check out a product or technology by typing in a few key search terms into job-hunting sites and you'll find a surprising number of nearly invisible competitors playing in your market.


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