Posted on 26/07/2017 by
Pfizer’s quest to generate health innovation as an ageing demographic threatens society’s ability to treat people
A crowd gathers in the airy atrium of Pfizer’s gleaming UK headquarters deep in the countryside as managing director Erik Nordkamp green lights a frenetic business pitch contest.
Fact-packed mission statements bounce from the makeshift stage as ten start-ups race through their allotted 60 seconds to signal the first element of a quest to generate healthcare innovation.
The companies, from vision restoring technology to genetic diagnostics, get longer opportunities to outline the healthcare need and value potential of their ideas but the one minute slots are fast and furious emblems of a healthcare landscape going through seismic change.
The contest - with $70,000 investment and a year’s worth of no-strings, high-grade assistance as prizes - marks the launch of Pfizer’s Healthcare hub in the UK following a successful incubator lab project it prototyped in Germany three years ago. The multinational now has ten hubs reaching out to new health communities around the world and is crackling with ideas.
The winners, announced in July, will be at the forefront of reshaping healthcare around the globe as an ageing demographic with rising levels of co-morbidities and financial constraints threatens society’s ability to treat people.
Nordkamp took time out from judging the entries to stress the importance of technological disruption to the UK and global markets.
“The healthcare system is in a spot of trouble in terms of what they want to do and the demographics are going one way so that is only going to get worse,” he says in a relaxed interview in a 2nd floor office as the start-ups scurried around reciting their pitches and checking presentation boards.
“We are at the dawn of some fantastic technologies coming from all sides that could provide the solutions we need and the potential from the convergence of pharmaceuticals and digital technologies offers better patient outcomes and efficiencies. We want to be part of that convergence game. We have more of a scale than some of these smaller companies so we can offer help.
“We live in a country that is already a centre for original thinking and innovation within healthcare and our goal is to accelerate the success of the brightest start-ups in this field and help them make a difference to patients.”
Nordkamp, who last year warned that the UK government’s approach to funding cancer treatments could fail patients, is equally bold in demanding that pharmaceutical company and healthcare system leaders and politicians embrace technological change.
“Leadership is important because if there is no belief at the top then it is never going to be picked up by the rest of the organisation,” he says. “The first thing that needs to happen is that leaders in the NHS, leaders of companies like myself, digital companies and med tech talk to each other and find ways to overcome barriers to innovation. We have a health system in the UK that is by nature decentralised so it is important that the leaders are committed and that commitment flows into the different regions with backing - let’s call it air cover - and leaders from companies such as Pfizer come together to say: ‘How can we adopt this innovation and make the best of it?’
“Culturally, this is where I admire the US a lot. We are a US company and maybe we can bring something that says ‘how can we make this successful’ rather than ‘why this won’t be successful’, which is culturally something that we Europeans are pretty good at.
“A mindset change is needed along with an openness to collaborate and also have unusual collaborations. This innovation scheme is good because we are forcing ourselves as a large pharmaceutical company to say the game is changing in the way healthcare is being provided and we need to be part of that game with new ways to collaborate. It is an ecosystem we are trying to live in and it is changing quickly.”
For Pfizer, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, it means taking risks and Nordkamp warms to the challenge: “It is important to be exposed and be a player in these areas,” he adds. “We always talk about ‘thoughtful risks’, which is still sitting on the fence in my view. You need to take risks but I’d rather not call it a risk. I’d rather see it as being better at being part of the change and the solution, and that means we need to dedicate resources and effort and money to be part of that.”
Former NHS surgeon Dr Hamish Graham, manager of the Pfizer Healthcare Hub: London, believes technology is at the dawn of its association with national healthcare systems such as the NHS. “There is public concern about it and trust matters, but the big challenge is to use healthcare better and the companies here today are looking to do that,” he says. “The NHS is acting but we are hoping to speed that up. We have loads of people who have proved to have patient impact and be transformative but what they are struggling to do is move forward through that. The grants will help but the real value is in the access to expertise and connections. The hub helps innovators achieve their goals and business plans by connecting them with the stakeholders that matter in the ecosystem.
“Digital can free up time for doctors and nurses; as a surgeon the less time I spend filling out paperwork, the more contact time I have. We are very keen to support start-ups that can make a difference.”
Pfizer, like all big companies, is feeling the icy blast of change across the pharma landscape but Nordkamp believes mission imperatives of discovery, development, manufacturing and embracing new technologies can provide insulation from the looming challenges which now include Brexit and drug pricing in the UK.
The company is still reeling from its record £84.2m fine last December from the UK government’s Competition and Markets Authority for allegedly charging excessive prices for its anti-epilepsy drug phenytoin sodium after it was debranded in 2012. The decision is being appealed but the pain is felt at the company’s Walton Oaks base in Surrey, which is home to 750 staff.
“Of course we were hurt by the ruling and we are appealing against it,” says Nordkamp. “The issues are complex but I am in this business to get the best medicines to patients, that is what drives us all at Pfizer. We have a great track record of developing medicines and working with authorities and will continue to do that. Those headlines are not good for our reputation nor are they indicative of how we work. This is a company dedicated to doing the best for the patient.”
He returns to the innovation theme to reveal close discussions with the government on how to accelerate the uptake of new technologies and says he is encouraged by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s intent for the UK to be a leader in med-tech innovation. But he is also clear that the politicians do not have the luxury of time to orchestrate responses to advancing health problems.
“If the NHS doesn’t take its opportunities, it will lose out on potential answers to some of the problems,” he says. “For big pharma companies leading their fields, it becomes more and more important that you innovate. Ask the question: ‘How much of your time do you spend executing something you know works and how much time do you spend innovating and experimenting?’ It becomes important for us as a big player to do that and if we don’t we will erode our own success and will not be successful in the future.
“We believe connecting with all these different players and innovators is important. We connect with IBM Watson and Google on a global level and we now have ten of these hubs.
“I have been blown away by the number of people who came forward with innovations and wanted to work with us and that has been far higher than I expected. The quality of the submissions has been high, promising and diverse. It reinforces that you need to be engaged in this area to know what is coming and how you could potentially connect that to what you are doing and it has been a reconfirmation of why it was important for us to get into this area.”