Leveraging partnerships between pharma companies and tech start-ups: a strategic imperative in the digital therapeutics space

In the dynamic landscape of healthcare, the motto “together we are stronger” resonates more profoundly than ever before. The fusion of minds, technologies, and resources across various sectors and stakeholders is not just a pathway to innovation but a foundation for transformative breakthroughs in patient care. This article delves into the essence of collaboration within the healthcare sector, highlighting the pivotal role of partnerships in driving forward the frontiers of digital health innovation and different models on how to achieve it.

The healthcare industry stands on the brink of a digital revolution, where the convergence of pharmaceuticals and technology has catalysed the emergence of Digital Therapeutics (DTx) as a promising avenue for improving patient outcomes and enhancing treatment efficacy. In this context of a rapidly evolving landscape, the power of partnerships between pharma companies and tech start-ups emerges as the anchor for success.

Collaborative ventures, particularly between pharma and digital health start-ups, offer a fertile ground for innovation, combining the agility and tech-savviness of start-ups with the clinical expertise, market access experience, multidisciplinary teams, and infrastructure of established pharma companies.

Models of collaboration: a spectrum of opportunities

Collaboration goes beyond interdisciplinary teamwork. Partnerships offer unique advantages and challenges to accelerate the adoption of innovative solutions for complex health challenges.

A pharma company who needs to fulfil its digital innovation endeavours may decide on buying an existing digital solution that offers a ready-to-deploy product or may decide on building an own solution. However, pharma companies often encounter difficulties in identifying digital expertise from internal stakeholders across DTx development, commercialization, and compliance phases.

In this case, multiple partnership options with technology-based start-ups exist. Let’s quickly delve into high level partnership models and examine their respective pros and cons.

  1. Sponsorship/Licensing a Solution:
    Pros: Offers a swift and cost-effective entry into the DTx arena while extending support to patients using the pharmaceutical company’s drug.
    Cons: Limited customization options and the need for rigorous compliance procedures may hinder alignment with specific brand requirements.
  2. Partnering with a Digital Health or DTx Company:
    Pros: Combines the complementary expertise of both entities, fostering faster implementation and potential customization to suit the pharma’s needs.
    Cons: Success hinges on shared culture, vision, and goals, and there may be challenges in negotiating a comprehensive and fully aligned agreement in between the companies.
  3. Creating an Innovation Hub to connect internal and external innovators:
    Pros: Establishes a consistent strategic approach, enabling scalability and customization across multiple franchise areas.
    Cons: Requires substantial investment in setting up a new business unit and entails integration efforts to prevent organizational silos.

By evaluating these partnership options, pharmaceutical companies can strategically navigate the DTx landscape to harness the transformative potential of digital interventions while mitigating inherent risks.

The example of Ferrer4Future

The aim of the Ferrer4Future programme is the co-development of technology-based healthcare solutions between start-ups and Ferrer. We believe that the power of joint ventures may unlock new frontiers in patient-centric healthcare and holistic disease management. The power of partnerships lies in the ability to foster cross-pollination of ideas, resources, and capabilities between the start-ups and Ferrer, and how these drive accelerated innovation and eventual market penetration in the DTx space.

The three partnership models mentioned above just scratch the surface of a world of possibilities and variables that can be creatively finetuned to accommodate the different company and ecosystem’s context and necessities.

Ferrer4Future was founded in 2019, inspired by the Venture Client Model, which could fit in between models 1 and 2 mentioned above. In this model, the corporate becomes a client of a start-up when it’s still a “venture” to do so. Here, the company purchases a solution from a start-up to an internal challenge for strategic benefits, from improving and/or co-creating new products, processes, or businesses1.

Advantages of this model include the fact that the corporate not only gains early access to promising new technologies at low cost and basically free of early financial risk, but they also benefit from gaining strategic insights into new technologies and markets, customization, pricing and sped-up time-to-market.

Furthermore, the experience gained through the original collaborations born within Ferrer4Future have reinforced the importance of understanding and addressing the comprehensive needs of the healthcare ecosystem, including patients, physicians, caregivers, and payers. Because there is no marriage without its frictions and challenges, working collaboratively with a start-up presents its own set of hurdles. One challenge might be finding alignment on the return on investment (ROI), as start-ups and pharma may have different risk tolerances and paces of operation. Ensuring the sales team is equipped to effectively sell digital solutions, bridging internal interprofessional and cultural gaps, and navigating the complexities of building a mutually beneficial term sheet are additional obstacles to overcome. These challenges underscore the importance of open communication, flexibility, and a willingness to adapt in order to forge successful partnerships in this innovative space.

For Ferrer to evolve towards personalized solutions in pulmonary diseases of vascular and interstitial origin as well as neurologic disorders, we seek to capitalize on the transformative potential of DTx. Embracing alliances with tech-based start-ups not only enhances our product offerings (digitally inclusive portfolio) but also helps us cultivate a culture of innovation and agility essential for thriving in an increasingly competitive landscape.

In the spirit of collaboration and progress, we invite entrepreneurs, digital health start-ups, healthcare professionals, and all potential allies to join us in this journey.

If you spot an opportunity for a collaboration, reach out to us! Let’s discuss how we can work together to make a meaningful impact and change healthcare.

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