Accenture recently surveyed 250 global pharmaceutical and biotechnology leaders to understand the state of digitalisation in biopharmaceutical R&D.

It was found that some progress is being made, but that there was a greater-than-anticipated gap between the expected value of digital in R&D and actions being taken to realise that value.

COVID-19 has served to underscore the need for digitalisation for business continuity and virtual data access, for employees, collaboration partners and patients.

We talk to Tom Lehmann, who co-led the study for Accenture, to find out more about what pharmaceutical companies should do to make adopting digital a reality.

What are some examples of digitalisation in the industry that are groundbreaking?

A good example is how earlier this year Oxford-based Exscientia, in collaboration with the Japanese pharmaceutical firm Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, put a drug molecule invented entirely by artificial intelligence into human clinical trials. It’s a new compound, designed to help patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. It reached human clinical trials in just 12 months – compare that with the four to six years that it typically takes for drug candidates to reach that stage. COVID-19 has clearly underscored the need to investigate opportunities to accelerate both the discovery and development stages of not only new vaccines but also other life impacting treatments.

Another example of how digital solutions can help improve the biopharma industry is leveraging tech to help find the right people for the right trials. In the industry, we know this is a widespread challenge. In 2019 Microsoft rolled out a new Clinical Trials Bot, which is part of their larger health care bot initiative designed to create automatic chat programs for triaging patients. The trials bot aims to make it easier for patients and their doctors to find clinical trials related to a specific illness. So, if you ask the bot to search for studies it suggests links to trials that match a patient’s needs.

Do you think people in the industry don’t know about this tech or don’t quite get the value?

There’s definitely buy-in that digitalisation is essential – and this was before COVID-19, which has certainly driven home that remote solutions are needed. We first did a similar study in 2016 and only one in four respondents felt digital capabilities would help drive patient outcomes and improve R&D productivity. Fast-forward to those who responded to a survey in 2019 and 72% said that they thought digital would drive success in achieving key strategic R&D imperatives. And then COVID-19 hit, and we’ve all seen a rise in telemedicine and biopharma companies looking to virtualise clinical trials, as well as interest in remote working solutions for scientists in labs.

That is consistent with what respondents already identified as key strategic imperatives they said they wanted to focus their digitalisation efforts on. They want to use digital to be more focused on patient outcomes and improve R&D productivity. So, there’s buy-in. The challenge is making it happen.

Why is that a challenge?                     

Risk aversion seems to be one of the major issues. A full two-thirds of respondents to our survey believe an aversion to risk is preventing them from fully embracing digitalisation. Notably, in companies with market caps above $10 billion, the number jumps to 75%.

But surely, that’s not preventing any adoption of digital technologies in R&D…

That’s correct, our experience has shown that most, if not all, life sciences organisations have moved to adopt some form of digitalisation. However, what we see is that many companies are struggling with how to scale those digital capabilities. Far more often than not, we see select digital use cases that are used to meet a need at a point in time, but there isn’t a focus on how to make that digital use-case repeatable and extensible.

It’s a classic scenario of seeking and getting results in silos instead of across a company.

What fixes that?

The drive to digitalise needs to come from the C-suite or senior R&D leadership.

Less than half of the respondents say that digitalisation is being driven enterprise wide. It’s typically being driven within individual R&D functions. But if senior leadership endorses and expects it – the question isn’t: “How can I experiment with new technologies?”, it is “How can new technologies be embedded into our new ways of working and create real value?”

But we are also observing other barriers to broader-scale adoption of digital that need to be addressed as well.

And they are?

One problem is metrics. Nearly two-thirds (60%) of respondents said they struggle to measure the success of digitalisation, particularly since in many cases it’s still novel. The feedback is often, “Yes, that sounds good. But how effective is it?” And if the old way of doing things felt good enough, well it’s hard to move people out of their comfort zone.

And then there’s the question of budgets and funding. A notable majority of the respondents say they are simply not sufficiently funded to undertake digitalisation.

The other barrier is talent.

Nearly half – 46% – cited lack of access to IT resources as preventing them from implementing change and 34% reported an inability to attract the right skills and talent. Digitalisation requires new skills that unfortunately are not always resident in a traditional R&D organisation.

So how do biopharma companies overcome these barriers?

It may sound a little like ‘consultant speak’ but the language we use when talking to clients is to think about creating an R&D digital ‘north star’, which is a clear goal for digitalisation that is tied to the organisation’s R&D strategic priorities and aligned to an enterprise-wide digital strategy. Think about that. To make it a strategic priority means it must be a senior leadership objective. And if you think about companies, in any industry, that stand out as leaders it’s often because their chief executive or a handful of the top executives, really embraced wanting to redefine their company and in turn their industry.

After a company makes it a strategic objective, then laying out the roadmap for the how-to is the next step, and that involves not just considering the organisation’s goals, but also the current data and technology landscape, and of course the appetite for investment. It also involves taking a serious, hard look at the company’s culture – if the DNA isn’t there to embrace this type of sustained change, the effort will struggle.

So, you might have to focus on a degree of R&D-wide buy-in first, but it doesn’t stop there, you need to make it a team sport to make change happen. By encouraging cross-functional collaboration, data strategies and data sharing platforms, not only do you encourage company-wide thinking for use cases but reinforce the overall support of the idea that digitalisation is a priority. (In another study we did in 2019, AI: Built to Scale, we found that 92% of companies that treated the adoption of AI technologies as a ‘team sport’ were classified as ‘strategic scalers,’ or companies that are committed to truly scaling technological investments.)

And then the tried and true approaches to adoption of new technologies apply – learn how to fail fast. You do this by establishing a robust digital use-case pipeline that allows for abandoning the losers and quickly picking the winners to progress from rapid design sprints to prototyping to scale-up. And finally, make sure you plan for and measure the value of your investments by keeping your eye on the north star.

But isn't valuing hard?

It can be, but it can be done. From the beginning determine how you will measure success and use those metrics to build a case for sustainable digital investment. Communicate those objectives and be disciplined in tracking both leading indicators and the actual impact delivered.  It’s also helpful to value the intangibles as organisations learn from failures, see the benefit of cross-functional collaboration, and begin to pivot during their digital rotation.

For many companies, right now it’s about creating momentum, showing value, and keeping your eye on scaling your successes. It’s definitely a journey and with the right strategy and roadmap and with persistent leadership support, an organisation will realise the benefits of digitalisation.

Tom Lehmann is a managing director in Accenture’s Life Sciences business