Pharma regains its sense of purpose

09 Jul 2020

Pharma regains its sense of purpose

Kyowa Kirin International’s Colin Sims talks to Doug Morrison about the dawning of a new era of “e-reality”, innovation and collaboration across the industry.

Colin Sims

As the world waits impatiently for a COVID-19 vaccine, attention turns to the pharmaceutical sector and expectations start to rise. According to one industry leader, the pandemic represents “a game-changer for pharma on a global scale”.

As far as Colin Sims, Executive Vice President - Strategy at Kyowa Kirin International (KKI), is concerned, there has been a rejuvenating spirit of collaboration and new-found sense of purpose across pharma during the past few months.

The pandemic may have presented major operational challenges to pharma companies, large and small. But Sims believes it has also created a platform for industry-wide digitization, greater innovation across all aspects of the business and, potentially, a far better service to its customers.

“I think the industry is probably being seen in the best lens it’s been seen in for a good 20 years,” says Sims, whose 25-year career in the industry includes senior positions at Sanofi and Novartis. There is, he says, “a once in a lifetime opportunity” to be seized here.

To put Sims’ observation in context and as he freely concedes, pharma has been a heavily sales-driven industry. Its reputation for perceived high drug prices, for instance, has obscured its value to the healthcare system for many years. As recently as last September, in its annual US Work and Education poll, Gallup reported that pharma was the most poorly regarded industry in Americans’ eyes – ranking last out of 25 industries.

As Sims says, pharma has remained an industry with “a very laggard approach to digitization”, relying instead on its “marketing muscle”. There have been joint ventures between companies “but there are not very many true collaborations” and perhaps unsurprisingly the consequence has been “a fallow period for innovation”. Sims argues that COVID-19 could help change all of the above.

Committing to collaboration

By way of example, he points to the new partnership between industry giants GSK and Sanofi where innovative technologies from both companies will be combined to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. “What they are doing is collaborating in a very public, very committed manner, which was unseen before.”

Already there are signs of a softening of attitude towards pharma. In a survey of 1,000 UK consumers published in May by PwC, 78% believe pharma companies are working hard to develop vaccines and solutions for COVID-19 while 74% believe they are striving to ensure patients get access to required medicines. As a result, 54% say their impression of the sector has positively increased during this crisis.

In the case of UK-based KKI, which is the international arm of Japan’s Kyowa Kirin Co, Sims says there was a concerted effort to extend credit to distributors and wholesalers and ensure its range of specialist drugs were “as local to patients as possible” across international markets in the early days of lockdown. “It was the right thing to do to get our supplies out as far from our central warehouse as we could,” he says.

Digital transformation

Sims believes that such operational achievements and the enforced changes to working practices generally during lockdown have made “massively increased digitization” of pharma inevitable.

“If you consider the new normal, what does that look like?” he says. “Sales representatives are a vector of infection. Do we really think that somebody who’s walking from hospital to hospital, clinic to clinic, is going to be welcomed back with open arms as soon as lockdown’s finished? That’s pretty unlikely. The same goes for our medical advisors. All these people can actually interact virtually – away from hospitals and clinics. This is not the end of the field force, but it is a very different way of working for them”

Sims continues: “Even if only 10% of that [activity] moves to online, the impact on the business will be dramatic, and at KKI I’m trying to push much higher than that. I see this as a watershed.”

“I think the strategic direction of the industry – not just my own business – hasn’t changed but has been colossally, unrecognisably accelerated.”

According to Sims, the pace of change for pharma will be the equivalent of a 15-year journey reduced to a matter of months, which will be all the more dramatic for an industry he believes has significantly lagged other sectors when it comes to embracing technology in its working practices.

Implementing such radical change so swiftly will inevitably present major leadership challenges to pharma companies, including KKI. The solution, Sims declares, must come from the leadership assessing the enterprise holistically: the financial reporting, the HR information system, the supply chain, the way visits to hospitals and clinics are recorded, the publication of medical research.

All of which has to be interwoven with the corporate culture. “You can’t just change processes, you have to change hearts and minds as well,” he says. “You want everybody in a business asking the same question: can I be doing this differently, or can I be doing a different thing?”

Sims explains: “Digitization for me is not simply automating an existing process, because that process may well be out of date or unnecessary. But digitization can invariably increase the quality and the speed of what you’re doing. Safety reporting – a critical part of our business – can be massively accelerated. We can spot trends more easily because we’re doing real-time data monitoring.”

Pharma’s talent agenda

Sims also acknowledges that in pharma’s shift to “a new world of e-reality” there is “a massive agenda around talent now”. As he puts it: “Do you have the raw materials in people and their experiences? And the answer is, there are going to be things missing, so do you build or borrow? Do you upskill what you have, do you buy in new and hope that it’s going to be better? Or to get you to the new normal, do you go out to McKinsey, Bain, Accenture, whoever, and pull in what you need for the time being?”

He adds: “On the inclusion and diversity front, that was the direction we were already accelerating, and recent events have galvanised the whole industry on this. But how can you be inclusive and diverse in an industry that perhaps doesn’t have the required talents, and how are you going to ensure that you don’t lose sight of one in trying to gain the other?”

According to Sims, there is something else pharma must not lose sight of: that its digital transformation goes beyond simply making profits. In effect, the business sales model must evolve into a trusted, medical information-sharing model.

“Over 20, 30 years, the industry has slightly lost its way,” he says, “but the sense of purpose has been very much in place around the search for COVID vaccines and the auxiliary medicines used on ITU production. I think people in the industry have regained their calling as well.”

In this series, OBSERVE looks at how companies and their leaders are adapting and reimagining their organisations’ strategies and what lessons leaders have learned through the immediate impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

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