There is a body of evidence showing that big pharma’s scale, while a barrier to innovation, is a boon to launch. Average peak sales for new products are 50% higher in big pharma than among smaller players. And even the most powerful scientific breakthroughs can fall flat if their go-to-market execution is lacking.

With the capital required to develop breakthrough innovations, it almost goes without saying that when it comes time to bring these offerings to market, the stakes are high. And they are even higher among smaller biotech players, which means these companies are taking on a greater amount of risk.

To understand what sets a successful launch apart from the rest, C Space has spoken to executives from across the biotech space to understand what makes for successful vs unsuccessful drug launches. The results revealed three barriers to success:

  • It is all happening at once: Pharma and biotech companies are building the organisation, managing investor expectations, and developing their commercial strategy at the same time as preparing for the launch.  In fast-moving environments with multiple efforts happening in parallel, clarity of purpose is more essential than ever to keep teams aligned and moving together in lockstep
  • Everyone is an expert: Business and marketing leaders are surrounded by capable and entrepreneurial people from diverse backgrounds – with strong (and often conflicting) opinions. When competing perspectives clash, the loudest voice often wins – even when it is not the right path forward for the launch or the business
  • Change is constant: Only one thing is certain, uncertainty. There are going to be many moments along the path to launch where assumptions will be challenged. Knowing when to hold your ground is equally as important as knowing when and how to pivot. Horizon Therapeutics and Esperion are two examples of companies that were required to pivot during Covid, finding new ways of communicating to bring drugs to market in extremely challenging circumstances.

The customer as a guiding light
The real question is how smaller biotech companies can overcome all these challenges to achieve a successful launch. Luckily, there is one simple way to address all these barriers at the same time – elevating the customer to be a “North Star” helping to guide the way to a successful launch.

What if the starting point was empathy for the end user and the strategy was developed to build upon their core needs and goals? Research from Deloitte shows nearly half of drug launches that did not achieve more than 80% of expected sales did so because of a lack of understanding of the types of patients who would respond well or underestimated the difficulty of converting customers from existing therapies. Our executive interviewees told us that launching with clarity of purpose creates success when navigating a launch. This all sounds great in theory, but how does prioritising the customer lead to a more successful launch?

Firstly, this approach provides a point of stability in the chaos. A North Star based in customer empathy gives your team a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve and how it needs to feel to the customer, regardless of their specific role. Whether training field sales, talking through clinical trials or developing the brand, a clear and resonant articulation of what you are doing, from the voice of the people you are serving can be a force for moving not just confidently, but quickly.

It narrows the focus to what matters most. In a sea of opinions, a clear strategy will win. Starting with a strong foundation of customers’ core needs creates a reference point for the whole team on what needs to be solved.  One company that has put the customer at the heart of what they do is TherapeuticsMD.

Its deep understanding of who its women fundamentally are allows Therapeutics MD to create messages, content and promotional materials that truly speaks to her, in her own language. Its content also goes through various iterations to ensure feedback from women is built in – so the audience is sure it has truly been heard.

Finally, a North Star supports the ability to pivot. We know embracing uncertainty is one of the keys to a successful launch, and prioritising consumers allows greater flexibility. Often our biases cause us to focus on things that are not as critical to delivering what matters most, making teams rigid. Solidifying what will impact the customer will allow (and even encourage) flexibility in other areas.

Balancing pace and customer empathy

So far, so good. But now for the real question – how do you balance empathising with customers and the demanding pace of a biotech product launch? In the rush of the day-to-day, it can be difficult to find the time to keep consumers as a focus, let alone ensure you have the right insights from them to support a launch.

There are three key elements to planning a launch strategy at the necessary pace, while also being guided by empathy to help reduce risk and increase the likelihood of success: co-creation, a learning mindset and focusing on the customer experience.

  • Co-creating your strategy with all stakeholders will drive alignment and avoid blind spots. Any well-coordinated effort is based on a foundation of strong relationships among driven individuals who share the same goal. Aligning and building connections between teams of different backgrounds and areas of expertise helps to prevent organisational siloes that lead to costly missteps. It can also increase empathy, by showing how each person who engages with your offering is interpreting that experience and identifying what can, and is, engaging for the end-user. Co-creation – with the right team – drives better decision-making at the speed required for a launch in an industry like pharma.
  • Leverage a learning mindset, allows iterative development of the strategy pre- and post-launch. Don’t be afraid to test hypotheses, run quick studies to support your assumptions and keep exploring questions as they arise. And keep asking and learning about the customers you serve. Engaging your customers allows you to build this deeper understanding of unique target groups, be that physicians, patients, or indeed the payers. This provides the insights necessary to ‘fail fast’ and helps teams to pivot quickly, as they truly know the space, their customers and their business. Outside of the pharma and biotech industry, working with consumers as collaborators is becoming a standard of emerging top-performing brands. Atolla is a great example – it builds a predictive model to help individuals achieve their best skin throughout the chapters of their lives, working hand-in-hand with the community every step of the way.
  • Making empathy for the customers’ experience the lynchpin helps us focus on our actions. Among the chaos of the constantly changing biotech ecosystem, the customer experience offers a reliable yet dynamic point of reference. Empathy is a crucial tool to make the customer experience more doctor- or patient-centric. However, real empathy requires understanding your audience as a whole person to understand how all their interactions are mediated by their environment: their home life, culture, financial situation, family responsibilities and so much more. Companies that effectively and accurately empathise outperform those that don’t. Our research shows that the feelings brands create in people through the customer experience (CX) are a significant driver of choice, consideration and whether or not people recommend you to others.

Throughout this, it is important to remember that empathy is not a one-time event – it is an ongoing way of working. Apellis Pharmaceuticals adopted this approach in preparation for its first launch, creating a foundation for empathy-driven commercial launches. The company views co-creation not as “check the box”, but as a requirement and as something that can be “deeply fulfilling and enabling for both the company and the external stakeholders,” according to, Head of North America Sales and Marketing, Becky Bailey Bristol.

Teams need to understand and internalise the problem they are solving from their patients’ and physicians’ point of view, allowing them to make decisions through the lens of the target audience. By creating a series of iterative touchpoints to build empathy and pressure test assumptions, you can push the team towards this mindset and optimise the approach as you near launch.

At the end of the day, a product can only change the world if it is accessed and adopted by the people who need it most. Too often, a relentless focus on development can result in blind spots around how those solutions will be received in the market – particularly when it comes to pharma and biotech. By working with customers to define and refine the go-to-market strategy well in advance of launch, you will be able to minimise risk and maximise your impact. And maybe even change the world as a result.

Corey Schwarz is managing director of C Space Health