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Daniel Flossbach
Daniel Flossbach
Home | Newsletter | UPDATE 2 | 2018 | The life sciences need a digital boost
June 21, 2018

The life sciences need a digital boost – Get involved now!

A wave of digitalization has been sweeping all industries. Media, banking, insurance, telecommunications and retail are pioneering this development. Under the banner of “Industry 4.0,” the digital structures are also taking over the processing industry at a rapid pace, with automotive clearly ahead of the game. An idea that started with streaming services for music has expanded to new payment methods, new services and whole new currencies. As a society, we have welcomed the digital transformation into our daily lives without much friction. But what about the life sciences? The clocks still seem to be ticking a bit too slow in our industry.


Small startups are busy filling the gaps that larger players are neglecting. The Baltimore startup Insilico Medicine, for instance, is utilizing artificial intelligence extremely innovatively to develop new pharmaceuticals. ­Google and Amazon, the de-facto pioneers of digitalization, are well aware of the immense opportunities offered by the life sciences sector. They are pouring their own strengths into the industry, and many of their services are already causing a stir.

Why does our industry not live up to its full potential, leaving the field to newcomers and industry outsiders instead?


Digital Boost - Digital Transformation for Life Sciences


Why the sector is lacking momentum

Not all companies are stuck in the past. Campaigns by global leaders such as Roche and Novartis are well underway. They focus on personalized medicine, digital patient engagement, studies on the efficacy of pharmaceuticals, efficiency and many other topics. Further, Novartis appointed a new chief digital officer with a background in retail. The company presumably hopes to gain a new perspective and new expertise. This highlights the future of the sector: we must move towards our patients and facilitate direct communication and contact.

But these players, too, face a major barrier. The greatest challenge of our heavily regulated environment is the acquisition of sufficient data (after all, healthcare data are highly sensitive) and establishment of necessary standards and interfaces. To complicate matters further, the healthcare and life sciences industries are growing ever more closely connected. This increases complexity and, in turn, intensifies integration requirements, regulatory hurdles and data protection standards.

Modern consumers wish to stay informed anywhere and at all times. Companies are under increasing pressure to provide professional, customized medical content and personal health data. Estonia took concrete steps in this direction a long time ago. Digital patient files (using blockchain technologies!) have become commonplace in the Baltic state, while Switzerland has been trying and failing to implement a similar system for years.

But there is more behind the sluggishness of the life sciences industry than just an impenetrable jungle of regulations and complexity. There is simply not enough pressure to transform. Our business environment remains largely positive even without any significant effort to pursue the digital transformation. Medical devices are one of the world’s major growth markets. This has given rise to complacency: considerably fewer than half of companies believe that digitalization affects them at all.

The collaboration between research, education, politics and the life sciences industry also has potential for development. In Switzerland, the federal government promotes initiatives such as the “Swiss Personalized Health Network” (SPHN) to advance digitalization. These initiatives focus on healthcare, however, which should come as no surprise: the field is heavily regulated (resulting in high barriers to entry) and partially state-owned. Our industry needs to get involved. It relies on the corresponding data for its clinical research and development work.

To summarize: the race is underway, but not many runners are joining in. Anyone who wants to cross the finish line successfully needs to get and stay involved. Waiting for other players or politicians to join the race is a waste of time.

Digital Boost — concrete steps to take

We have everything we need to keep our successful industry on track for a bright future: a leading position in the global life sciences market, excellent universities and hospitals, a reputation for being one of the most innovative regions in the world, outstanding research and development facilities, and a globally renowned healthcare system. Let us take full advantage of these valuable tools. Our industry must not miss the transition to the digitalized life sciences – it is too important to the German-speaking countries.

It needs a functioning, collaborative ecosystem that integrates the life sciences, healthcare, politics, research and development. These players must work together to develop a portfolio of digital life sciences initiatives that realize innovative projects. Our digitalization project must achieve two specific, crucial goals: it must support innovative companies, startups and consortia. And it must establish a platform that can connect innovation leaders with the right contacts in the business world and reduce the barriers to entry that stand between these projects and their success.

No single company can drive the digital transformation of a whole national industry. In addition to our traditional companies, we will need data-driven businesses in future. This is the field we must support and develop if we want to take Switzer­land’s life sciences industry to the future. In concrete terms, this means:

  • Creating a “Digital Transformation in the Life Sciences” strategy involving key players
  • Identifying the skills and capacities required for implementing the digital transformation in the life sciences
  • Evaluating the current situation (SWOT)
  • Defining and funding a marketplace / platform for innovation leaders and industry players
  • Defining and initiating flagship projects for all relevant domains
  • Strengthening interdisciplinary collaboration and mobilizing all available resources
  • Promoting the dual education system to develop new professions that will be needed on the market in future
  • Connecting all stakeholders
  • Petitioning for and creating a regulatory environment that supports innovation – the topic of autonomous driving in the automotive industry has proven that development can shape legislation
  • Creation of a legal framework for exchanging anonymized medical data (for the safety of all parties and to prevent uncertainty among patients)


Digital Boost - Digital Transformation for Life Sciences


Some companies have already recognized the potential of digitalization in the life sciences industry. But they are still a small minority. A broader, joint movement is required. At the very least, we must support and promote innovative startups. It is high time we caught up with the pioneers of digitalization – Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and the like – and focused on the opportunities inherent to the digital transformation. This task cannot be left to a small number of large manufacturers. To draw level with more innovative industries, we will require an industry-wide movement comprising as many small, medium-sized and large companies as possible. After all, we will also be serving our own self-interest by expanding our competitive advantage.

■ Marco Rogg