Covid Catalyzed Change

At AI LA, we are passionate about bringing leaders, scientists, and innovators together to share their views on critical topics. We believe the free sharing of new ideas among a diverse audience of makers and innovators will lead to positive connections and new enterprise that benefits our communities.

Of the many important subjects to explore, a rich area for discussion lies in the overlaps between health care, biomedicine, robotics, and information technology.

Therefore, we were proud to have organized last October’s Life Summit 2020 to discuss the many monumental changes and adjustments in healthcare delivery and innovation and the exciting new ongoing research. Some 50 panelists and presenters gathered to share their ideas and current research, all of whom welcomed opportunities to learn, partner, and collaborate with the attendees. It was a terrific opportunity to learn from and connect with the bioscience and business communities in LA and around the world!

We were fortunate to welcome Claire Bonaci, Senior Director of US Health and Life Sciences at Microsoft. At the time, Ms. Bonaci’s role at Microsoft was to work with pharma, biotech and life sciences companies of all sizes to help them along their digital journey. Ms. Bonaci brings to the table many years of experience working in big pharma managing clinical operations in oncology trials. We asked her to share her observations about the state of the industry during 2020. In her keynote presentation, she makes the case that:

Covid was—across the board—history’s biggest and best impetus for change in the history of pharma and biotech.

Her logic is evident: to respond to the Coronavirus pandemic, speed was paramount, and since (almost) everyone was mobilized to act toward one common cause, the barriers to cooperation between traditional rivals fell, as well as those to enterprise-wide adoption of enabling digital technologies; not to mention a fundamental rethinking of how companies can operate and adapt to rapid change.

She points out that pharma companies were perceived by many as “evil empires” before the pandemic”. For these people, the perception was that pharma companies were driven more by profit motives and less so in the interest of public health. Drug prices are too high! Why should they profit from my illness? Would pharma put profit ahead of safety? Consequently, regulations were imposed to constrain their actions in the interest of public safety, lengthening the time and increasing the cost required to bring a therapeutic to market.

These constraints were reversed once the scope of the pandemic was clear. Suddenly, only big pharma had the resources and infrastructure to rescue the world from a devastating and potentially long-lasting disease and its widespread impact on the world’s economies. Now everyone wanted to solve the same problem. Barriers to cooperation evaporated; collaborations and partnering developed among academics, governments, and technology companies of all sizes.  Some partnerships even developed between erstwhile competitors, now working together to ramp up production of badly needed supplies. (She mentions hydroxychloroquine as an example. There’s an interesting story there!) In some cases, of course, these pre-Covid regulations were justified in service of the greater good, but now loosening these regulations was instrumental in alleviating bottlenecks and saving lives.

Especially in early spring 2020, the world was rapidly changing — taxing risk management departments’ ability to adapt nimbly and capably to the utmost, particularly in managing their local and global supply chains. In many cases, this forced the adoption of digital tools to promote agility in virtual work, including managing clinical trials. In Ms. Bonaci’s view, the technology was already available for these kinds of changes, but costs and regulatory impediments against enterprise-wide changes delayed the implementation of many potential innovations for years. This meant that many large corporations were still running operations using tools from decades past. Covid changed all of that almost overnight.

The result? Big pharma rose to the challenge. Working in partnership with governments and across the industry, several highly effective vaccines were developed, tested, and ready in just one year instead of the “usual” ten.

At the time she spoke, Ms. Bonaci said she believed that many of these changes would be permanent, particularly new paradigms in virtual and remote work, running virtual clinical trials, and automating manufacturing. She thinks the increased collaboration and partnerships across the life sciences industry will continue, including between pharma, technology companies, and academic institutions. Companies will continue to develop supply chain risk management organizations and maybe more nimble in planning for and adapting to changes in the future. What do you think? 

Leave a comment below, and be sure to come back in October, when we will host Life Summit 2021, for a fresh look at how the industry continues to change!

About THE author

Kjell Nelson

Kjell Nelson is a Bioengineering PhD / MBA who feels like he’s emerging from Hypersleep (5 years in China, 16 months under a blanket). He holds patents in microfluidics and engineered proteins. Past projects focused on biomaterials, rapid diagnostics, and global public health. Currently he is interested in applying drone technology and remote sensing in agriculture.  Kjell is a longtime supporter of early stage tech startups, loves to talk technology and commercialization, and is keen to network within the LA bioscience community.

Are you ready?

Get Early Access to Life Summit 2021!