HealthTech
14 July 2021

8 Pharma Healthtech Trends to Watch in 2021

Written by Robbie Richards

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The pharmaceutical industry has been traditionally slow to embrace new technology, but the latest pharma health trends are signs of a massive paradigm shift in the industry. 

The latest technologies, like AR/VR, artificial intelligence (AI), and additive manufacturing, help pharma companies accelerate the research and development process, create personalized products, and conduct testing in innovative ways. Ultimately, these technologies make healthcare more effective and efficient, transforming the experience for patients and providers. 

Pharma healthtech is growing globally. In addition to the United States, countries that are seeing rapid growth in pharma healthtech include the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and Israel.

Read on to discover the latest pharma healthtech trends and how they’re shaping the industry and the future of healthcare as we know it.

What are the Leading Pharma Healthtech Trends?

Healthcare technology investment is at an all-time high, having grown 47% to hit $51Bn in 2020

But, which areas are powering the biggest changes?

Here are the top eight pharma healthtech trends that will shake up the industry:

  1. Artificial Intelligence
  2. Wearable Tech Integration
  3. Data Management & Analytics
  4. Single-Use Processes
  5. Precision Medicine
  6. Bioprinting
  7. “In Silico” Testing
  8. Real-World Data

1. Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI is becoming increasingly pivotal in healthcare. According to a report by Grand View Research, the global AI healthcare market size will reach a staggering $31.3 billion by 2025, growing at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 41.5% in this time.

AI is already improving the industry with its immense predictive and data analytics capabilities. This use of AI technology enables healthcare professionals to analyze patterns in data sets to understand the implications, benefits, and success rates of new drugs before launching them into the market.

Pangaea Data, a British startup, uses AI alongside Machine Learning (ML) for real-world evidence (RWE) studies and clinical trials. Using ML-powered software, Pangea Data can scan electronic health records and illegible doctors' notes to identify patients. The company is also creating a library of AI models for various disease areas.

Invivo AI, a Canadian startup, uses novel ML strategies such as representation and few-shot learning (deducing results from limited data) to test new drugs and select the best potential candidates for the medicine. These processes eliminate the need for large datasets, accelerating the drug discovery and development process.

2. Wearable Tech Integration 

Wearable tech integration allows pharma companies to do more than just manufacture, market, and sell drugs. The technology gives patients greater power to manage their conditions and make critical decisions. 

We already have a range of remote patient monitoring devices that make it possible for doctors to track glucose and blood pressure metrics and keep tabs on chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes. 

Daiichi-Sankyo, a Japanese drugmaker, and Partners HealthCare Center teamed up to implement the use of wearables. The two institutions created a device coined "the mobile wrap-around," which monitors patients diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and sends feedback to doctors.

Roche is another early adopter of wearable tech integration. The company paired its mySugr app with the Accu-Chek Guide glucose meter, enabling people with diabetes to experience a different, more responsive way to manage the condition.

With the device, patients can log in and complete simple tasks, which allows them to keep track of their glucose levels. The approach is unique, practical, and effective—offering a better experience for patients than simply waiting around for answers.  

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The mySugr app presents a new way to manage diabetes. Source: mySugr

3. Data Management & Analytics

The cost of research and development is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the launch of new drugs. For instance, the development of a new molecular compound or biological medicine can cost around $2.6 billion.

The ripple effect is that there isn’t adequate development and dispatching of effective medicines. By leveraging big data, pharma researchers can shorten exploration cycles, leading to the quicker discovery and distribution of new drugs.

Big data can also help determine a drug's side effects beforehand, which reduces the time needed for clinical trials. The costs of research and development inflate the cost of medications, so shortening R&D cycles can help lower the costs of medication for patients. 

Carnegie Mellon University is improving R&D by integrating big data with a machine learning algorithm that can test and analyze various drugs. 

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The lengthy discovery and development process can be accelerated with technology. Source: Alzheimers Dement (N Y). 2017 Nov; 3(4): 651–657.

4. Single-Use Processes

More pharma companies are embracing single-use technology (SUT) in their manufacturing process. This shift is ongoing as there are more industry players becoming aware of the incredible advantages of this technology.

SUT-powered bioreactors can facilitate high-tier processes at a larger scale. Also, the technology supports the manufacture of more reliable products, eliminating the need to sterilize containers.

With reduced maintenance processes, pharmaceutical companies already using SUT report quick turnaround and development times and simplified operations.

Equipment running on SUT is easy to set up, taking one or two hours compared to stainless setups that can take a couple of days. In addition, system maintenance is relatively straightforward, with no need for sterilization validations, annual cleaning, and minimum monitoring.

Single-use processes reduce the risk of product cross-contamination, making it easy to maintain a sterilized production environment.

While SUT is a relatively new technology, its benefits are far-reaching, making it impossible for pharmaceutical companies to ignore. The future of SUT is bright, and more pharma companies will join the bandwagon in 2021 and beyond.

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Single-use bioreactors are an increasingly popular option for simplifying processes. Source: ContractPharma

5. Precision Medicine

Precision medicine offers a new approach to disease diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. This technology uses the patient’s genes and lifestyle to help doctors make accurate, data-backed decisions. 

With a CAGR of 10.7%, the precision medicine market value will exceed $96 billion by 2024. This growth owes much to the success of recently targeted therapies. When fully implemented, precision medicine will revolutionize oncology, making possible personalized treatment for every patient. 

While precision medicine is still at the early development stages, offering truly customized treatment to patients will require a total overhaul of how healthcare professionals deliver and develop therapies.

The successful implementation of precision medicine will require a new regulatory, clinical, economic, and technical structure. That way, doctors can administer the right therapy to the right patient at the right time.

If the growth projections are anything to go by, this will be one of the most disruptive pharma healthtech trends in 2021.

6. Bioprinting

Clinical testing is still a significant challenge in the pharma industry. Companies use live subjects to measure a drug's efficacy and safety during clinical trials due to the lack of a better medium. However, thanks to bioprinting, that’s about to change. 

A significant stride in health tech that sounds like it was pulled from a dystopian movie script, bioprinting uses 3D printing–like techniques to create imitations of natural human tissue and organs. This technology combines cells, growth factors, and other biomaterials to form a mesh-like structure.

These 3D-printed organs can replace live human subjects during clinical trials. Bio-ink — a liquid suspension of living cells and the primary component of 3D printed organs — can help researchers create human tissue in-lab. This incredible technology forms micro-organs and tissues that react the same way the human body does to new drugs and substances.

Customized bio-ink made using genes from a patient can enable researchers to recreate larger, more complex organs. It could even allow pharmaceutical companies to create customized drugs suitable for a specific patient.

Other benefits of bioprinting to the pharma industry can include:

  • Testing drug toxicity at a specific dosage
  • Modeling diseases and testing various treatment procedures
  • Measuring a drug's metabolic effects in living tissue

The use of 3D-printed organs could help drive down costs associated with clinical trials while reducing the time required to approve new medications.

7. In-Silico Testing

Product development in cosmetics is costly and time-consuming, especially whenever companies look to discover new ingredients. Now, more companies are turning to in-silico screening to tackle these production problems.

The powerful technology uses molecular databases and virtual modeling to make it easier to discover new active ingredients, which can help guide cosmetic product development. 

In silico screening tools work together with databases and simulation software that store molecule information and interactions with proteins. In pharmacology, in-silico screening can show how a potential cancer-causing molecule interacts with proteins involved in the cancer process.

There is a range of possible use cases for in silico screening, as it can help sectors that rely on biological research such as food toxicology research, drug, and cosmetic development achieve the following:

  • Improve existing products
  • Identify potential active molecules for a specific target and vice-versa
  • Guide product development and other different possible R&D processes
  • Show the biological activity and health application of certain compounds

One real-world example of in-silico technology is the GPDB database, which stores information about plant extracts and natural molecules.

8. Real-World Data

Real-world data (RWD) is one of the emerging pharma healthtech trends that play a vital role in health care decisions. For instance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses RWD alongside real-world evidence (RWE) to determine a product's safety and identify adverse events before making regulatory decisions.

Health care professionals use these two technologies to support coverage decisions and make guidelines on medical tools in clinical practice.
In addition, medical product manufacturers use RWD and RWE to support clinical trial designs such as pragmatic clinical and large simple trials. The developers are also using RWD and RWE to support observational studies and new treatment regimens.

Because of the sophistication and analytical capabilities of RWD and RWE, the health care community can analyze data and use the results of their analysis to improve product development and approval processes. 

Mobile devices, computers, biosensors, and wearable devices all collect and store health-related data. This data then allows health care professionals to design and conduct better clinical trials, which helps answer questions previously thought impossible.  

As data is so intrinsically linked to technology in all industries, we can expect RWD to remain a core component of pharma healthtech trends for the foreseeable future.

Key Challenges in Pharma Health Tech

Despite its potential to change the pharmaceutical world, pharma health tech isn’t without its issues.

Tech and medicine are unique spaces, each having its own distinct cultures and working methods. As a whole, the health community is familiar with a structured working environment and lengthy development process. For instance, developing a new drug can take years, not to mention clinical trials before releasing the drug.

Conversely, technology companies work in a fast-paced environment with agile, cross-functional teams, often releasing products and refining them later. With the diverse mode of operations, it’s not easy to merge the two industries, yet doing so is vital for the success of healthtech startups and emerging healthcare projects.

Here’s a look at the challenges facing pharma health tech right now:

Cybersecurity Threats

The pharma industry is a prime target for cyberattacks. With the innovation and massive investment in R&D and intellectual property on patient health data, the sector is a hot spot in the data threat landscape.

According to Deloitte, 70% of pharmaceutical companies say cybersecurity threats are one of their biggest concerns. The data stored by these companies is sensitive, often pertaining to patient’s private health matters. Losing control or access to this data could be catastrophic for a company or medical organization’s reputation.

Healthtech data breaches affect the company's valuation and erode the trust customers, and patients have in the institution. In addition, companies that fall victim to cybercriminals face hefty fines and overall company disruption. 

Intellectual property and valuable data in the wrong hands could mean years of research going down the drain. Cybercriminals pose a neverending threat. Furthermore, with the current rate of innovation, pharma organizations are in the spotlight more than ever. Therefore, companies must mitigate any internal and external risks.

By implementing the right strategies such as staff education and awareness, companies can safeguard information and maintain data privacy.

Supply Chain Integrity

With pharma healthtech trends comes the digitization of the healthcare industry's supply chain. The developments necessitate more dynamic knowledge on how cell and gene therapies travel through the supply chain.

For instance, pharma companies need to determine the best way to transport these therapies and maintain sensitive temperatures. The drugs are life-dependent and expensive, which means that the supply chain must be error-free.

There is an urgent need for the industry players to create a channel that allows a seamless exchange of information between supply chain partners.

Pharmaceutical companies should adopt a robust digital network platform to ensure supply chain integrity. That way, organizations, researchers, and other parties can share information and exchange ideas on improving product efficacy.

For example, the Internet of Things (IoT) can help transmit complex data in real-time within the pharma industry. IoT sensors can also track the temperature of medication and ensure timely delivery.  

According to Forrester, digitization of the supply chain industry will drive the growth of IoT, with total spending set to grow to $435 billion by 2023.  

IT Integration

Maintaining regulatory compliance is a big challenge as the pharma industry relies on IT systems to drive growth and efficiency. As technology changes, so do the regulations. As a result, companies face a constant battle to stay updated with the latest manufacturing processes.

Biopharmaceutical companies are always focused on profit margins, and there are many acquisitions and mergers in the industry. As a result, many organizations struggle to find a balance between swift IT integration and quality products and processes. 

In addition, there is a shortage of IT talent in the pharma industry. Companies that attract top talent have a problem retaining such employees. While this isn’t unique to this sector, it hurts pharma organizations’ ability to maintain high standards.

IT will always play an integral role in the biopharmaceutical industry, and 46% of organizations claim this digital skills shortage is the biggest stumbling block for digital transformation in the sector. 

Evolving Tech

Even with the adoption of the most recent technological advancements, pharma companies could find themselves in the market searching for a newer, more current solution. The latest tech can get obsolete pretty quickly, which makes it difficult for pharma companies to compete.

In an industry powered by innovation, pharma companies cannot afford to fall behind with technology. Nonetheless, companies don’t have the budget to test every healthcare trend that emerges. Pharma organizations can overcome this hurdle by carefully evaluating which healthtech solution offers the best return on investment (ROI).

MassChallenge works with corporate and industry leaders to build and accelerate their innovation practices and drive business growth. By partnering with MassChallenge, pharma companies can create better products and deliver improved healthcare to patients. Moreover, this solution helps enhance their operational, regulatory, clinical, and financial performance.

Final Thoughts

If there is any silver lining from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that it was a wake-up call for pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors. Pharma and healthcare companies are now rethinking their processes and how they can work more efficiently. 

Companies need to do their part to overcome existing business challenges first. You must evaluate security to develop a robust cyber resilience framework and ensure you have the right team to lead a successful digital transformation.

As time goes on, we can expect more healthtech initial public offering (IPOs), acquisitions, and mergers, as investors flock to back new startups and healthcare initiatives. 

MassChallenge enables corporations to team up with exciting new talent from our partner network. Our accelerators offer pharmaceutical institutions and healthtech startups the global scaffolding to accelerate and connect their technology and talent initiatives with the external innovation ecosystems. 

About the Author

Robbie Richards is an expert contributor to the MassChallenge blog for over two years. He writes on innovation approach, entrepreneur resources, and business and marketing trends. He has been published in Forbes, Ahrefs, WordStream, and more.

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