Simon Dew is an experienced life sciences executive currently consulting with several early stage biotech organisations independently and through Sunstone Capital. His previous position was Senior Vice President, Corporate Strategy and Communications, EMEA at Astellas.
Digitalisation is transforming big pharma currently, how do you see this cascading down into biotech?
At the moment if you look at the digitalisation happening across big pharma, it is being used effectively on the clinical side in various engagement activities from patient portals to physicians in development. The challenge lies externally with patient centric engagement such as outcome based propositions and other external communication.
A successful example that I have seen some success with digital strategy in biotech is in orphan drugs and rare diseases. Digitalisation allows companies to engage more actively with patient organisations and I can see this as an area ready for future exploration within the biotech industry. If you look at the development side with companies like QuintilesIMS (now IQVia), they are doing great work by collaborating with third-party sources to obtain a wealth of information to the benefit of patients.
On the whole, biotech’s tend not to be looking at full digitalisation when it comes to development but there are definitely a number of areas which can be exploited so that processes can be streamlined. I am currently working quite closely with a gene therapy group that is focusing on rare diseases. They have a great database of healthcare providers with whom they are able to interact with and collate data which supports both patients and their development activities. Unfortunately, pharma’s past reputation can undermine patient engagement.
Where do you see the next steps in innovation coming from in pharma and biotech?
I don’t think there is a particular area of innovation because breakthroughs are always being made in science; every week we see a new article about a breakthrough in science. The challenge is accessing that science and technology and understanding the biology and how it benefits patients. If you look at immuno-oncology, 10 years ago that was just a pipeline; it wasn’t until immuno-pharmacology was better understood that this could be put into full use and medicines could be developed.
I am also seeing commercial innovation through the use of digitalisation. If one is to work with commercial models which are more adaptive and flexible, by partnering with companies that have data linked to patients and physicians, then you are better placed to target your commercial organisation.
I recently worked with a rare diseases business who looked to partner with a genetics company. By pairing their data, they were able to identify hot-spots where the disease was prevalent, enabling them to target their activities more efficiently. From a commercial technology perspective, it seems this is where the innovation lies.
How do you think the patent cliff will affect the biotech industry? And connected to this as there are so many biotech products imminently coming off patent, what do you think to different companies’ approaches to biosimilars?
The patent cliff obviously effects everyone. The biggest challenge for companies looking at biosimilars is the regulatory route. The US has historically had greater challenges. Europe is, and I think going forward this is something which will likely level out. We have also seen an increasing demand for biosimilars in emerging biotech markets such as Russia, the CIS, and in the Middle East. When it comes to Western Europe though, biosimilars seem to be facing commercial challenges.
Asia is becoming progressively prominent in life sciences financing; how do you think this could transform the industry?
This is a fascinating question. In China and other emerging markets there are areas where capital is in abundance and they are trying to attract top-level science by offering attractive financing. What I am seeing at the moment though is that there is still some reluctance to have these partners as major shareholders but if the funding organisations prove themselves to be patient then step-by-step this could become more prominent. Partnerships between emerging investors and established European or US-based venture capital organisations, acting as a fund-to-fund investor, seem to be the route to success at present. I don’t think Asian capital will be transformational as such, as ultimately the money always seems to follow the science.
How will Brexit effect the funding of early and mid-stage biotechs in the UK?
I don’t think it will have a major impact because in the long-term the funding is all driven off the back of the science and the innovation. The UK government is really working to attract investment in many high-tech sectors. If Brexit were to cause an exodus of the innovation, technology and human talent, then it will undoubtedly have an impact.
The venture funds I consult with believe it is more an issue of stability and knowing where the financing, and not just the biotechs, will be located. I think the funding will always be there for innovation, it just could be a little harder to obtain.
The private equity houses are still relatively well funded, they are of course not looking so much into biotech, but they can be reactive to opportunities at the same time.
And finally, as its very topical, what do you think about the movement of the EMA to Amsterdam and how do you think it will impact the UK life sciences industry?
Well firstly I think it was a great coup for Amsterdam. The industry concern is around the transition and whether the process was/is going to take far too long. I think it is now critical for the EMA to start focusing on their remit with regards to patient safety, public health and ensuring swift access to medicines. This means working quickly on transitional actives and getting medicines to patients.
The UK’s challenge is to ensure authorisations via mutual recognition post-Brexit, so the UK population has continued access to medicines.