Technology is set to transform the pharmaceutical industry

“Learning new things, being intellectually challenged, is what makes me tick”, says Zeynep Erden. “I feel ever so privileged to work in a profession that actually pays me to do what I like best.” Last January she joined our Healthcare Management Centre and was appointed Professor of Strategy and Innovation Management

Zeynep is an innovation and strategy scholar, with a special focus on technology and knowledge management in the pharmaceutical industry. “I try to understand what fosters or hinders innovation and which innovation strategies lead to competitive advantages for pharmaceutical companies. I’m particularly interested in how new technologies change the way organisations innovate.”

Macro and micro perspective

Professor Zeynep Erden - Vlerick Business SchoolThe pharmaceutical industry is a highly regulated and technology-intensive one, where knowledge is the main source of competitive advantage. Taking a macro perspective, she investigates how and through which channels, e.g. alliances or R&D activities, companies learn and build their knowledge stocks and how these knowledge stocks impact on innovation and company performance. On a micro level she analyses innovation practices within drug discovery and development teams, i.e. how they can improve their knowledge creation practices and deal with uncertainty, and what they can do to become more agile.

Zeynep identifies three major trends that are currently shaping the innovation strategies of pharmaceutical companies.

Patients first

For a start, the pharmaceutical industry is becoming more consumer-focussed, or rather patient-centric: “As patient well-being plays an ever-increasing role in drug approval, market access and reimbursement, pharmaceutical companies try to involve patients more in all the stages of value creation. New technologies, like artificial intelligence, biosensors and mobile apps provide companies with vast amounts of patient data, enabling more advanced analysis and, as a result, precision medicine, i.e. blockbuster drugs designed for the average patient will be replaced by treatments that take into account individual variations in genes, environment and lifestyle. These digital technologies will also change the firms’ value propositions: combining drugs with biosensors that communicate with mobile apps to guide patients is no longer science fiction, and a far cry from just selling pills.”

Advanced data analytics

She goes on: “A second trend is the use of advanced data analytics, like machine learning and artificial intelligence, in corporate decision making across the entire value chain, from R&D to manufacturing and marketing. Thanks to sophisticated analysis techniques firms will be able to improve their understanding of disease pathways, to plan clinical trials more efficiently and to take timely decisions to stop projects with little chance of success.”

She adds: “Big data and artificial intelligence initiatives have changed the competitive landscape: pharmaceutical companies now face competition from the likes of Apple and Google, whose analytics capabilities are way ahead. Pharmaceutical companies  have no time to lose: they should think out of the box, explore the opportunities these new technologies have to offer and weigh them against the associated risks and threats.”

“Pharmaceutical companies realise the threats and have started to invest in digital healthcare and advanced analytics. As a result, we observe changes in the way those companies operate: how they interact with stakeholders, such as patients and payers, how they design their research and conduct clinical trials, and how they market their drugs,” says Zeynep. “But not only do technological advancements impact operations, they also change the business models. Or to paraphrase Novartis’ new CEO, Vas Narasimhan: technologies enable reimagining Novartis as a medicines and data science company. Now, although the pharmaceutical industry has started to take serious initiatives and its conservative nature is slowly changing, it’s still lagging behind other industries in adopting digital technologies.”

Call for better and cheaper medicines

And finally, there is growing pressure from regulators and payers to offer better, i.e. safer and more effective medicines, at lower costs. “While R&D expenditures have been increasing over the last 30 years, productivity has declined, a phenomenon referred to as the innovation gap. The huge cost of developing drugs is reflected in their price, which is not sustainable in the long run. I believe pharma companies should try and find ways to reduce costs by selecting leads that have a higher chance of making it to the market, and by avoiding late phase clinical trial failures. And like I said, this is where new technologies and advanced data analytics come into play.”

I want to have an impact

What does she hope to achieve? Zeynep thinks carefully before she answers: “I want to be involved in research that shapes our future and inspire people with my teaching. For me, teaching and research are complementary, which is why I want to continue my field studies as a means of enriching my teaching while using discussions with students to inspire my research. My ultimate goal is to have an enjoyable, fulfilling career that has a positive impact on the lives of others.”

Take every opportunity to learn

Zeynep feels she has a positive attitude to life. “This doesn’t mean that I deny problems or shy away from risks. But I don’t let negative feelings get the better of me. I try to leave my comfort zone as much as possible and get involved in new initiatives in order to grow, personally and professionally. And then I learn from my successes as well as my mistakes.  My motto sums it up: be positive, do your best, and learn for the next time.”

It’s this positive attitude she feels she shares with us that attracted her to the School in the first place: “Vlerick has an entrepreneurial and open-minded culture that fosters innovative ideas. People are encouraged to pursue their curiosity and creativity in both teaching and research. The enthusiastic and caring attitude towards colleagues, students, and society in general is just fascinating.”

Profile

  • Privat Dozentin (∼Associate Professor) ETH Zürich, Switzerland (2017-present)
  • Visiting Scholar Chalmers University of Technology, SE (2016)
  • Senior researcher and lecturer (∼Assistant Professor), ETH Zürich, CH (2011 – 2016)
  • Researcher and lecturer, ETH Zürich, CH (2006 – 2011)
  • PhD in Strategic Management and Innovation, ETH Zürich, CH (2006 – 2011)
  • MSc Mechanical Engineering, RWTH Aachen University, DE (2003 – 2006)  

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