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Three pivotal developments that occurred in 2017 illustrate the growing relevance and influence of the Swiss pharmaceutical and life sciences industry on the world stage. Companies in Switzerland are also playing innovative roles in reshaping the pharma value chain and contemporary paradigm of healthcare provision.
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Three momentous events defined the Swiss pharmaceuticalsand life sciences industry in 2017. Firstly, the emerging field of modifying and deploying a patient's own cells to fight cancer received a massive boost when Novartis secured FDA approval for the first-ever chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR-T) cancer therapy. Secondly, the highly acclaimed Swiss biotech, Actelion, was acquired in an unprecedented USD 30 billion all-cash deal. Thirdly, Swiss pharma exports surpassed a value of CHF 80 billion (USD 80.9 billion) bringing a net trade balance in at around CHF 47.9 billion (USD 48.5 billion), by far the highest of any country in the world. Each of these developments, in their own way, point to the growing relevance and influence of Swiss pharma and life sciences on the world stage. What is less publicized is the highly innovative and inspirational role that Swiss firms are also currently playing in reshaping the pharma value chain and contemporary paradigm of healthcare provision.
Switzerland has long positioned itself at the vanguard of countering cancer; a disease which the WHO predicts will reach an incidence rate of 22 million new cases per annum by 2030. Pertinently though, Switzerland's trailblazing spirit in facing down this major public health threat never ceases to impress.
First came Novartis' unprecedented decision to assemble a global business unit (or 'firm within a firm') dedicated solely to developing and launching innovative oncology medicines, thus enabling the company to deploy a nimble outfit, with speedy decision-making power especially suited to accelerating the development and commercialization of new generations of cutting edge cancer therapies.
Petra Doerr, head of sector Communication & Networking, deputy executive director, Swissmedic
Then, this year the Swiss giant unveiled 'Kymriah,' the first CAR-T immunocellular therapy, approved in the United States for the treatment of individuals with B-cell precursor acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. "Basically, this constitutes a highly personalized and game-changing therapy in which T-cells are drawn from a patient's blood and reprogrammed in our cell processing facility. These genetically coded T-cells are subsequently infused back into the patient to potentially hunt down the patient's cancer cells," describes Bruno Strigini, CEO of Novartis Oncology.
Bruno Strigini, CEO, Novartis Oncology*
* Please note that the interview with Bruno Strigini was conducted in October 2017. Bruno Strigini has subsequently announced that he will retire from Novartis Oncology in early 2018.
However, beyond Novartis, a multitude of Swiss life science firms are furiously busy reconsidering how to go about treating and managing a disease that is no longer necessarily a death sentence. "There is a whole new market segment materializing that pertains to cancer supportive care," points out Saad Harti, president and founder of Legacy Healthcare. "If you think about it, cancer can increasingly be regarded as a chronic illness because many people are today surviving the acute stage of the disease, but ending up with a substantially reduced quality of life following the affliction," he reasons.
"Because cancer hits you everywhere, synthetic chemical medicines with onerous side effects often have to be utilized to counter the initial impact, but it makes little sense, however, to be prescribing additional drugs carrying yet more side-effects. Far better, wherever possible, to instead resort to reaction-free botanicals at this particular stage when the patient is already highly medicated," he argues. Legacy's lead candidate, CG428, a botanical hair lotion that helps re-establish the natural balance of the hair cycle when disturbed by chemotherapy and hormonal cancer treatments, strives to do exactly that.
Nor is this an isolated example. Other local entities like the medical device firm, Stratpharma, have been arriving at much the same conclusions. "Right now, we are moving towards oncology, specifically radiation oncology... One of our products - StrataXRT - is for the prevention and treatment of radiation dermatitis. We take the management and treatment of radiation dermatitis and do it in a completely different way, by changing the way the symptoms are handled," explains CEO and founder, Darren Kerr.
Jean-Paul Clozel, CEO, Idorsia
"Eight of the top ten cancer drugs today are biologics or biosimilars. You have TKInhibitors, EGFR and PDGFR inhibitors, for example, each of which targets cell parts and molecules which are also involved in the functioning of the skin. Patients treated with these new therapies can therefore develop rashes and radio-sensitization. While we have new radiation machines that have skin-sparing technology, these biological targeted therapies are running in the other direction. There is greater efficacy, but you get drug rashes as a side effect. Our products work to significantly reduce these drug rashes in a non-pharmacological way, and they constitute a fantastic medical breakthrough," he affirms.
Switzerland's pioneering contribution to going beyond the boundaries of medicinal science is not confined to the urgent matter of oncology. Even the most cursory glance across the nation's bio-valleys and life sciences hubs uncovers a myriad of SMEs active at the sharp end of new discovery.
Darren Kerr, CEO, Stratpharma
Neovii's flagship product, Grafalon for example, has attained great acclaim for its potential to prevent chronic GVHD after stem cell transplantations. "Historically, the product was used to prevent acute rejection of the organ during transplantation. It has been developed into a stem cell transplantation setting; a development that has been well documented in relevant medical journals," recalls CEO, Juergen Pohle.
Juergen Pohle, CEO (as from January 2018), Neovii Pharmaceuticals
"We have seen opportunities to develop the product further. For example, we can transfer the product into allogenic paediatric stem cell transplantation and hub flow haploidentical stem cell transplantation. We are also looking at opportunities to enter autologous stem cell transplantation as well. This aspect of pharmaceutical study has been brought to our attention through recent scientific publications. So essentially, we are looking at expanding Grafalon's value both from a patient's and a physicist's perspective. Specifically, we are interested in cells that are transplanted into the patient. The potential is huge," he assesses.
Another homegrown innovator, Polyphor, has invented an entire new class of antibiotics called Outer Membrane Protein Targeting Antibiotics (OMPTA). "A new class for Gram-negative pathogens of this ilk had not been witnessed for over 40 years. This is an area where there is an increasing and enormous medical need, and Murepavadin, the frontrunner of this new category is looking extremely active against resistant strains, which will be major news if it successfully passes phase III trials," exclaims CEO, Giacomo Di Nepi.
Geistlich, meanwhile, a family firm that dates back to the 1850s, has been innovating bone graft technologies and collagen based-products for regeneration in the dentistry and orthopedic sectors. "We started early on with tissue and bone as a main focus before branching out into underserved areas where we can make a real difference to patient lives," remarks the company's CEO, Paul Note. "We work hand in hand with universities and some of the best specialists in the field in other institutions worldwide and are incredibly proud to rank as one of only a handful of companies that holds in-house research and development resources in these areas."
Paul Note, CEO, Geistlich
Yet others are engaged in defining entirely novel fields of therapeutic enquiry. Biognosys's main focus is the decoding of the proteome, an activity that its founder, Oliver Rinner, claims "will impact the life sciences more than the genome revolution." Proteins constitute the most significant functional elements in the body. The human physiology is almost entirely run by proteins in regards to cellular structure, enzymes, and receptors. The purpose behind the creation of Biognosys has been to better understand the mode of action of various drugs and biological processes by understanding the changes in the protein levels and activation," he proclaims.
Oliver Rinner, CEO and founder, Biognosys
What then nourishes this abundance of locally implanted pioneers? Some would say an incredibly supportive ecosystem and a talent catchment pool encompassing some of the sharpest scientific minds. "We are fortunate to be able to bank upon a highly efficient local infrastructure with easy access to exactly the caliber of scientists that we require," laughs Note. "The highly-skilled talent available here is immense. The country also has a very positive attitude towards innovation and business as well as a reputation for being extremely stable politically. This backdrop allows independent companies to put reliable long-term plans into action," agrees Pohle.
Another driver could well be the dramatic success story of biotechs like Actelion that stand as role models and reference points. J&J acquired Actelion earlier this year for a mighty USD 30bn. The deal was unique in that nobody was laid off, Actelion's project pipeline was not disrupted, and the development capabilities were spun off to form a new independent entity called Idorsia. "There was no value destruction. We have to be the only start-up that sets out with 650 people! ... That pretty much sums it up. I sincerely hope that we can act as a model for others to follow in how to conduct M&As intelligently and non-destructively," urges Jean-Paul Clozel, Actelion's former owner and now CEO of Idorsia.
He does sound a cautionary note for anyone striving to copy his achievements, however. "Past success is the biggest enemy of future success. Just because you have succeeded in the past does not mean you will necessarily succeed in the future. This has been true with the creation of Idorsia ... You need to be constantly reinventing yourself. Idorsia's story should be viewed as a reinvention. I do not want Idorsia to turn out as an Actelion clone. If anything, it has to be an improved Actelion, an 'Actelion-plus' if you like," he counsels.
Switzerland remains both influential and relevant in global pharma circles not just for the obvious core activities of research, discovery and marketing, but also for its prowess in outsourced manufacturing. This might seem surprising considering the comparatively high cost of Swiss labor relative to the rest of Europe, let alone further afield. "There's no denying that Swiss manpower is expensive, but when you measure us in terms of quality at source, you'll find Switzerland located right at the top of the leaderboard," counters Marc Funk, COO of Lonza Pharma & Biotech. "This country ranks very highly for doing things right first time and for established trust so it is clear that manufacturing, where these sorts of attributes are highly prized and valued, has an important role to play within the local economy. This is something that is readily understood and appreciated by our partners and clients," he continues.
Indeed, those seeking to manufacture high grade, complex pharmaceuticals are increasingly drawn to reliable, high performance and efficient environments like Switzerland. "You just have to look at the direction of outsourcing trend horizons and the abundance of companies that, having initially relocated to places with a meager cost of labor, subsequently reverted back to host countries that are quality-at-source friendly ... Ultimately there's a great deal of truth to the saying: 'That which is cheap is always too expensive!'" laughs Funk.
The same rings true for active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) producers. Synbias Pharma, which took a strategic decision to relocate to Switzerland back in 2011, is a case in point. "We secured our first credit line from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development which was a very important milestone for the company's development because it enabled us to invest in our own fermentation plant and rely on our own raw materials ... before long we found ourselves dominating the world market for anthracycline antibiotics," recalls Marina Lugova, executive VP for business development.
She considers their unique selling points as quality, process innovation and efficiency. "The foremost challenge in our segment constitutes the regulatory requirements, which are becoming ever more stringent, so the most sought-after criteria tend to be quality and safety. Our clients have been working with us for over a decade and will continue to do so because of our track record and dependability on the quality front and the trustful relationships that we have managed to forge. Our most eye-catching feature is the purity of our APIs, and the fact that our products are truly best in class, matching the very highest European and American standards," she affirms.
Lugova also agrees that the sorts of efficiency savings, productivity levels and intelligent processes that they are able to leverage in an advanced ecosystem like Switzerland more than outweigh any labor cost drawbacks. "We are renowned for the extent of our process innovation which is reflected in our portfolio of different patents and our cost structure... Our capabilities started from API production and we integrated backwards into fermentation building new competencies and expertise all the while. Being in Switzerland and utilizing Swiss talent has enabled us both to outsmart some of our competitors and create our own intellectual property," she confides. "Switzerland also provides us with unparalleled opportunities for fundraising so as to further develop the business," she adds.
Naturally, Swiss API providers tend to concentrate on the most sophisticated categories where the value additions are most pronounced. "We hone in on the more complex molecules that would be most difficult to emulate," says Peter Kaufmann, CEO of Selectchemie. Their flagship product, Caspofungin takes a time-consuming 34 fermentation steps for the API to take form. Consequently, few companies around the world possess the necessary capabilities to fabricate it. "Caspofungin must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, shipped at minus 20 degrees and is kept in a vial form. Initially we had expected clients to buy the dossiers through a down payment and a finished dosage form, but interestingly, this was not the case. The process is actually so complicated that buyers would prefer to purchase the finished product than look to assemble it themselves, so we now have to oversee that step as well," he admits.
With both the pharmaceutical and biotech industries increasingly looking to outsource critical functions from manufacturing to clinical research, Swiss service companies and multinationals operating locally have been quick off the mark to embrace fresh business models more aligned with evolving needs. "One trend that we perceive is that the nature of our interactions with our clients is undergoing a profound shift and we now find ourselves serving a whole range of different types of actors often displaying distinctive requirements," reflects Lonza's Marc Funk.
Peter Kaufmann, CEO, Selectchemie
"Looking back, the mainstay of our work used to be about supplying manufacturing batches and conducting development work across modalities for small molecules and biologics. That offering alone is no longer sufficient for the present-day context. The sheer number and type of actors populating the biopharma landscape today has radically evolved. Moreover, the kind of therapies being developed these days is also quite different. The rise of complex biologics and the sensitivities around their handling imply a great deal more risk," he notes.
The ramifications of all of this has been a surge in demand for bespoke, custom-made solutions. "Current clients require greater flexibility in terms of how to address future volumes and commitment to reserving manufacturing capacity in the light of the uncertainty and unknowns inherent in the prevailing drug development process. Furthermore, there is also a real desire on the part of our customers to reduce the costs and increase the efficiency of the manufacturing part of the value chain," he reveals.
Switzerland's contract manufacturers have therefore been responding by repositioning themselves as 'flexible service providers.' Thomas Huber, CEO of Skan Group gives an example from his niche segment of pharmaceutical conditioning. "Quite frankly the new world of medicinal science has been revolutionizing the filling manufacturing business. Small batches and personalized medicines are now very much the name of the game... Today, customers require the production of as many as four different products on the same machine in the same shift. The challenge is thus not so much the filling process itself anymore, but rather how to clean the machinery between batches to ensure there is no cross-contaminations between products," he explains.
German entity, Bilfinger Industrial Services, which undertakes not just pharma manufacturing but a suite of industrial service solutions including assembly, maintenance and process technologies, equally finds itself being compelled to be more versatile. "Things are changing quite a lot, even for our big clients. One year, they could have full production, the next they could have lower production, and we have to adapt to such fluctuations," recounts Stefan Frefel, the company's CEO for Switzerland.
Stefan Frefel, CEO, Bilfinger Industrial Services
The business logic underlying the contract manufacturing process has therefore matured to better reflect the trajectory of demand. "A decade ago, everybody was talking about scaling up. The aim was basically to acquire a small production line and then, providing everything went well, to purchase a large one so as to mass-produce products for the global market. Today we are instead speaking about scaling out. You buy one small line, then a second, a third and so on. Rather than having one mega line housed in a single production center in a choice country, you'd nowadays prefer to have four small lines distributed around the world and be able to produce much more locally," elaborates Huber.
Service firms also need to be much more internally agile so as to be able to simultaneously cater to the demands of differentiated client groups. "Lonza has many Big Pharma customers on its books that already possess in-house capabilities. The nature of our relationship with them is very much one of true partnership. They require a partner to manage their overall manufacturing strategy and we view ourselves, in many respects, almost as an extension of their assets. The style of relationship we have with them is much more entwined than that of a traditional outsourcing service provider," explains Funk.
When it comes to servicing biotechs, however, the nature of the relationship is rather different. "Generally, they do not possess in-house capabilities or any kind of know-how about the manufacturing process. In many cases, they are seeking not just the use of our facilities, but also the expertise on identifying optimum manufacturing and development solutions for molecules where the destiny of the end product is often still fraught with uncertainty. In this case we serve as a one-stop-shop CDMO and partner of choice that can fulfill their full range of needs, whilst helping them buffer volatility," he says.
A similar pattern of disruption exists in the clinical research domain, where leading CROs have been jockeying to inject more flexibility into their service offering. "There are many more types of organizations participating in pharmaceutical development today, from small biotechs to mid-size biopharma, to large multinationals ... These clients have a wide range of different needs and as a top-tier CRO you have to be versatile and flexible enough to respond to these forces. The one-size-fits-all template of yesterday is no longer fit for purpose," concurs Jonathan Koch, group president for R&D Laboratories at Covance, a leading US clinical research specialist whose state-of-the-art Global Central Lab in Meyrin, in the canton of Geneva, stands as the largest of its kind in Europe.
Jonathan Koch, group president, R&D Laboratories, Covance
"Some clients come looking for a partner that can be highly and truly full-service in nature. Others may be conducting the trial predominantly in-house, but nonetheless require an element of support maybe in the data resources or monitoring or programming or oversight. Flexible service providers are agile enough to conform functionally to whatever is required at a particular moment and that is precisely why we have been making some strategic acquisitions that can bolster our capabilities and help us deliver the precise breadth and depth of service that each and every one of our clients are seeking. Our recent purchase of Chiltern, for instance, allowed us to round out those FSP solutions by bringing us added strength in areas such as clinical analytics," he recounts.
Karen Huebscher, CEO of Solvias, a world leader in contract research, development and manufacturing (CRO/CDMO) very much mirrors these assertions. "The complexity of drug development today is driving a tendency towards outsourcing to the point where the pharma companies of the future might well be holding the platform, with significant activities actually in the hands of third parties. Meanwhile, the service industry is transitioning from a pure transactional model towards much more of a partnering, full project scope interaction," she observes.
"As a Swiss entity with a staunchly scientific, perfectionist, precision technology mindset, we have to show ourselves flexible enough to adapt to customers' real needs... sometimes they will require speed and functionality, rather than the gold-plated, luxury version and we have to be versatile enough to deliver that. If what a client really needs is a Citroën 2CV, then we can't be insisting that they take a Ferrari," she warns. "Developing a drug is a massive undertaking and our mission at the end of the day is to understand our customers and help them bring products to the market faster, efficiently and more cost effectively."
The nature of the work conducted has also been changing. "We've overseen a re-balancing of our service portfolio over the last four years between small and large molecule development. Our business line dedicated to large molecule development has been registering strong growth of in excess of 20 percent and biologics are constituting an ever greater share of our workload," she concedes.
It is not merely in client relations that locally implanted firms have been reconsidering their way of doing things, but also in their engagement with payers, healthcare providers and the public health system. "While US companies are innovating through partnerships with biotechs and health technology specialists and can often claim to be at the forefront of a lot of the scientific advancement, I see the European companies, generally speaking and especially the Swiss, leading the charge in endeavoring to tackle the main challenge associated with contemporary healthcare: how to manage the health of populations that are getting older and sicker and in need of affordable treatments, but simultaneously innovative ones that can counter the disease profile of today," analyses Vicky Levy, head of life sciences and healthcare at Deloitte.
Vicky Levy, head of life sciences and healthcare, Deloitte
She perceives many Swiss pharma companies "reaching out to health systems and paving the way for new financial arrangements that reduce costs to the health systems, whilst still rewarding the industry for the patient outcomes they achieve with their medicines."
First among them is probably Novartis, which has shown itself open to negotiating entirely new performance-related payment mechanisms for some of its latest-generation therapies. "We put a great deal of thought into how to price Kymriah, which is delivered to each patient just once because this is intended to be a one-time, highly effective treatment. Our approach was to collaborate with the United States Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and come up with an outcome-centered arrangement whereby they only pay if the patient proves responsive to the therapy and also indication-based pricing, which together represent a first-of-a kind arrangement for the United States," details Bruno Strigini.
Debiopharm's president Thierry Mauvernay meanwhile is appealing to health authorities to rethink the pricing of antibiotics, especially given that recent KPMG studies demonstrate that this important category of medicines adds, on average, some ten to 15 years to human life expectancy, compared to only five or fewer for many oncology products.
Thierry Mauvernay, president and delegate of the board, Debiopharm
"In our view, the prices of many antibiotics are set far too low and not sufficiently appealing enough for industry because it's difficult to cover the costs of developing new antibiotic compounds. Changing the business model is therefore an urgent necessity. Considering that new targeted compounds are only being deployed by physicians when absolutely necessary so as to minimize the spread of antibiotic resistance, we believe a smarter way of doing things would be to have antibiotic price policy mirroring that of the insurance industry," he advocates. "For instance, for a hospital with 100 beds, you could end up paying a fee each year for the right to use a targeted antibiotic. With 200 beds the amount would be doubled regardless of whether they actually end up being filled or not," he elaborates.
Karen Huebscher, CEO, Solvias
Interestingly, the Swiss authorities themselves recognize the importance of proactively working hand in hand with the industry to lower the costs of drug development so that innovative therapies can become more affordable again. Certainly, the regulator appears attuned to industry concerns and proposals. "It is undeniable that the regulatory burden today is more onerous that in the past and therefore we are sympathetic to the [drug companies'] predicament and the effect that this has on end pricing. I would point out, though, that a more stringent regulatory regime is the natural consequence of enhanced patient safety. The solution is to work together to optimize the regulatory process without any reduction in standards. I think that a more pragmatic flexible approach to clinical trial design is the direction in which we are all headed. Already you see the FDA taking a lead in rethinking and reevaluating the parts of the clinical trial process to make it more fit for purpose under certain specific circumstances. Swissmedic can be expected to follow suit," declares Swissmedic executive VP, Petra Doerr.
She notices a rising tension between a demand for faster access to innovation from patients on the one side, and a call for enhanced regulatory stringency and oversight on the other, but is confident that competing interests of safety and innovation, flexibility and regulation, and price can be balanced through deep collaboration involving all stakeholders. "We have established a working group with representatives from different patient consumer organizations that meets four or five times a year to discuss precisely this sort of conundrum. Right now, we are at the stage of exchanging insights and information so that all stakeholders around the table understand each other and the different motivations in play. There are ways to square the circle, but the starting point has to be common understanding. Pharma companies obviously seek faster approval timelines and payers demand affordability, but this cannot come at the expense of safety and no one really wants us to degenerate into a soft-touch regulator," she explains.
Equally forward-looking on the part of the Swiss regulator is their overt acknowledgement that, in an era of upheaval in drug development characterized by post-market access clinical studies, predictive modeling and the fast emergence of personalized therapies for which the genetic variances make clinical evidence impossible, the regulatory framework itself is in need of modification so as to adapt to the times. "The way that drugs are being developed is being rethought as new technologies become available and scientific awareness in areas like genetics increases. We do therefore feel a need to update and mature some of our legacy processes to make them more fit for purpose and aligned with the current environment. To ensure that we are proactive in doing this we have implemented a system for horizon scanning that seeks to identify trends and developments likely to affect us in the future. It is clear that we have to move with science and be flexible and versatile enough to react in time to unfolding developments," admits Doerr.
Benjamin Rousselot, vice president, strategy and corporate development, Laboratoires Diepharmex
Yet another way in which the Swiss are managing to shift the paradigm across drug discovery, targeted medicine and healthcare provision is in facilitating the big data revolution. "The incorporation of disruptive technologies in the medical world is definitely ten years late, not due to a lack of interest, but because of regulatory difficulties" opines Debiotech's CEO, Laurent-Dominique Piveteau. "The political environment of Switzerland is crucial for this type of development."
He continues, "Switzerland boasts a strong image for respecting privacy of data thanks to its heritage stemming from the banking sector. Despite the current negative connotations surrounding the financial sector, it must be outlined that from a personal data and legal perspective, alongside a stable political context, Switzerland ranks highly. If you have a private, semi-public or public institution keeping your data, you want to make sure as a patient that over time this will remain the same and that things won't change. You don't want a change in the political environment tomorrow which will make digital data available to everyone. That is why stability is a crucial aspect."
Already, locally active firms have been quick in mastering the arts of secure life science data. For instance, INSIGHT Health, which acts as a data provider and consultancy, is proud of the scope of its capabilities. "We have assembled an experienced team of 25 professionals dedicated to taking care of data quality processes and so forth. This way we can minimize the risk of mistakes and have full control over the data. Our secure solutions begin with the data we receive: it is already anonymized. Not even a malevolent person could retrieve personal information from our data," enthuses Petra Exner, regional director for Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Petra Exner, regional director for the DACH countries, INSIGHT Health
"Moreover, if we zoom into micro regions, we never look at a single data source like an individual pharmacy. We combine several pharmacies in one 'brick.' Our bricks never fail to contain more single sources than the data protection law requires. This way we can work with very detailed data but simultaneously can ensure the highest level of confidentiality. We therefore demonstrate that market transparency and data security are both simultaneously possible," adds Tobias Haber, the company's managing director for Switzerland.
Tobias Haber, managing director for Switzerland, INSIGHT Health
Nor should the extent of these achievements be underestimated. "With fast and transparent supply of data analyses we can create value additions for the pharmaceutical developers, health insurance, scientific institutions as well as decision makers in healthcare provision," claims Exner. "Today we see ourselves as a solution provider for the entire marketplace supporting our customers individually and efficiently in all manner of ways – from product launches and optimization of sales force to portfolio management and patient-know how – while at the same time affording them access to a DACH-wide database that provides an overview on the performance of brands and products across Germany, Austria and Switzerland simultaneously."
Another entity, Appriver, which is regionally headquartered in Switzerland has been making headway in securing medical records so that they can be digitally handled by the appropriate practitioners and patients. "All our services are cloud-based; therefore, our customers' mission-critical information never leaves Switzerland. In the healthcare industry, email encryption has been an extremely strong area for us. For example, when a doctor sends an x-ray file to a patient via email, it is like sending a postcard at the post office. The perception is that nobody can view this information, but the reality is that administrators can see this confidential file at any time. Therefore, we have developed an end-to-end encrypted technology, so the file can be sent privately by the doctor and the patient can encrypt the message," expounds Rocco Donnino, executive vice president of corporate development. Tellingly, moves are already afoot within Switzerland to incentivize life sciences-related start-ups to get on the digital bandwagon. Debiopharm, for example, has set up a special 'Innovation Fund' that invests in smart data companies to acquire know-how. "Our industry badly needs strong data management competencies to progress ... we look for companies developing solutions in precision medicine – digital therapeutics, digital markers, clinical decision support systems, patient monitoring tools and smart drug discovery and development tools – areas where utilization of big data and AI can create tremendous improvements for patient care. The goal of this CHF 150 million (USD 151 million) fund is to build a portfolio of smart data companies and build the future together," envisions Mauvernay.
This is vitally important because often life sciences entities are ill-equipped to fully utilize and exploit the data that they are collecting. "A crucial aspect is the relationship between data generation and data interpretation. The latest technological developments have enabled the acquisition of huge data sets but ultimately researchers want to test their hypotheses and answer their research questions. Converting data into knowledge is often the hardest step in this process as few biologists come from a statistical or data analysis focused background," observes Biognosys founder, Oliver Rinner. "Moving forward, I think data interpretation can become a main value driver. By using reference data sets, for instance, we can offer contextualized information that has been built up over many years," he points out.
Already some prominent actors along the pharma value chain have been making headway. Novartis has been astute in leveraging Big Data, predictive modeling and advanced analytics to shorten the time between finding a target and proof of concept, leading Bruno Strigini to speak of the "dawning of a golden age of innovation brought by a gathering convergence of the worlds of science, technology, biology and IT."
Covance, for its part, has earned the epithet of 'the Google of Blood' for its amalgamation of LabCorp's proprietary lab data with Covance's operational data to better inform drug discovery. "The skill is to identify which specific disruptive technologies are going to be the most productive and effective tools, because there usually is a lot of attrition involved so you can't pursue them all simultaneously," admits Jonathan Koch.
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