Alan Louie, Ph.D., research director at IDC Health Insights, discusses the life sciences industry’s quest to deliver better patient outcomes.
How long have you been working in the life sciences industry?
I’ve been in the industry for close to 30 years. When I was finishing my Ph.D. in biochemistry many years ago, I realized I didn’t want to pursue an academic career but wanted to go into industry. In the industry, you are working on more applied problems that more closely impact people's lives and improve society.
Early on, I was involved in medical diagnostics—such as developing tests that determined whether a person was anemic, or whether a pregnant woman was at risk for very bad outcomes.
Throughout my career, I’ve been able to combine problem-solving with science. Over a wide variety of industries, I have been involved with bringing nearly 30 products to market.
Can you give us an example of some of the products you have brought to market?
I developed a sensor to allow first responders to avoid chemical warfare agents, as part of my work in WMD counter-terrorism. I also brought the first packaged salad products to the Norwegian market, and helped to bring some of the first PCR-based DNA testing solutions to the criminal justice industry.
Now, as an analyst, I am focused on helping life sciences companies to succeed, with the goal of helping them identify and exploit technology, innovation and best practices to work faster and smarter.
Why do you like working in this industry?
This is a very exciting time to be working in life sciences, as I see a convergence of the many aspects that make up our broader healthcare ecosystem.
But what keeps me going is the same thing that got me started in the first place: the desire to improve human health, and to find more effective ways to address disease. It’s amazing when you think that at the end of the day, you actually improve people’s health.
Does anything or anyone in the industry particularly inspire you?
Two names come to mind: Leroy Hood, who has been foundational in terms of innovating in the research realm and has been responsible for so many technological advances—and Craig Venter, who has been involved in the human genome and really broke paradigms using a more commercial model.
What’s your hot-button issue for the industry right now? Why?
We discuss this almost routinely around our predictions report every year. The issues we highlight remain pressing for several years.
I think that the most pressing issue today is the effective use of data, information and knowledge to drive operational effectiveness and strategies.
We have so much information—now, we want to be able to harness it appropriately to make the most of it. Organizations are trying to work smarter, and they want to be highly effective in how they deploy their resources.
What do you see as the single, biggest transformation the industry must address in the next five years?
One issue we are dealing with, and which came to a head a few years ago, is getting over the bulk of the “patent cliff.” One of the main areas of transformation will be the pursuit of long-term sustainability in the pharma industry in the absence of new, large market, blockbuster drugs.
It is unlikely there are going to be many such drugs in the near future—there’s not going to be another Lipitor, or a new pain killer. So, companies that have subsisted on these blockbuster drugs for decades are going to have to find a new way.
What about in the next 10 years?
A few years ago, I made the prediction that we will have a full understanding of how the body works—based on all the biological pathways in the human body. Today, we certainly know a lot about human biology, in particular the sequencing of the human genome.
Within the next 10 years, I believe we will have a more comprehensive understanding of human biology. It’s sort of like the difference between knowing how to read, and comprehending the written word well enough to understand War and Peace on all different levels.
Understanding War and Peace, at its highest level, requires some very complex understanding. Human biology is going to be very much the same.
What role does technology play in these transformations?
There are two perspectives on technology. From the information technology perspective, all of the technologies are leading transformation. The cloud is enabling a lot of collaboration and agility, with vast amounts of information to be managed. We’re not quite at big data with pharma, but we will get there.
To do this, we will need analytics as a tool, and the computational power to process the data and deliver actionable analytics. This will happen through automation and/or by regularly delivering information and insights at the point of decision making.
We also look at mobility and the impact of social media in better understanding consumer behavior. The world of life sciences is becoming more of a 24/7 world. The future of the industry will be associated with better connecting everyone across the board.
There will be one degree of separation between everyone. So patients, clinical trial principal investigators and other caregivers can all be treated as individuals—and there will be the continuous integration of pharma and healthcare providers.
From a content perspective, things like the $1,000 genome—which arrived just recently—enables researchers around the world to more directly participate in advancing science, and accelerate the development of new therapies and treatments.
By inexpensively sequencing individual human genomes in research and academic medical center laboratories all around the world, we are helping accelerate the translation of genomic data into usable knowledge. And by converting this sequencing into biological pathways, we will better understand the impact of the role of genomics to the manifestation and treatment of disease.
You work with all sizes of life sciences companies across the globe. What three steps do you feel executive leadership can take at any sized company to take advantage of technology and stand out as high performer?
That’s a hard one. Some of the issues the industry has had to deal with have slowed it down. And there is a sense that, sometimes, you must go outside life sciences for best practices for the business. But we are seeing some interesting business models that could help to transform the life sciences industry.
One is pre-competitive collaboration, in which companies work together to fund and execute the common early processes of a research study, before the competitive aspects are introduced. That will reduce time and save money for everyone.
Secondly, it is going to be very important to engage with people and conduct outreach with the ultimate customer. The ability to engage with patients and maintain that close outreach will be very important for pharma companies moving forward.
Thirdly, we will have to create infrastructure for the effective use of information. There can’t be silos. Having information available across the organization is going to be critical to being successful.
Do you have a personal wish list of things you would like the industry to address in order to fully deliver improved patient outcomes?
As I’ve mentioned, the effective use of information is going to be key. We need to leverage technology to work smarter. Making the shift to a knowledge-based approach to drug development has to happen in order to drive efficient and effective future development of the drugs that we need.
To do so, the nature of the life sciences ecosystem has got to change. The borders that previously defined the life sciences industry are shifting. The way in which research and development is done, and the way these processes are commercialized is changing.
From an industry perspective, we are seeing academic research centers collaborate with leading pharmas—as well as with much smaller entities. On the back end, we are seeing deeper relationships with healthcare providers and payers. So the ecosystem is getting quite a bit more complex.
As a result of this convergence of the life sciences and healthcare industries, we expect there will be new shifts—including the possibility that life sciences company revenue may be more directly tied to patient outcomes. I think that’s really going to be the long-term opportunity for this community to succeed.
What surprises you most about life sciences?
We tend to hear a lot about the really big players that are successful and have billion-dollar products and services, but there are a lot of little companies that are doing really well.
There are these little niches that companies can thrive in, building up smaller companies that do $10 million in business. Both types of companies can co-exist in this ecosystem, and the opportunities are there for everyone.
In fact, it is amazing to me to consider the granularity with which the industry looks at problems. One can never underestimate the number of people who are studying a problem. There are very few green spaces, and multiple people are pursuing answers from many directions.
What is your outlook for the industry?
There are so many projects to work on. Think of someone who comes out of school and has aspirations to cure cancer.
Well, in the beginning, we knew of less than 10 types of cancers—and then, over time, there are now more than 200 different cancers. So it’s a little more complicated for the person who says, “I’m going to cure cancer.”
I think there are a lot of ways to succeed. But, clearly, there are going to be a lot of challenges that are going to be there for many years. But that’s also the opportunity, and why I am optimistic about this industry. It’s a very exciting time. Things are moving quite quickly … and there is a lot more to come.