Borderless Executive Live

In Conversation With: PharmaStars' Naomi Fried and Laura Gunn

September 09, 2021 Borderless Executive Live Season 2 Episode 2
Borderless Executive Live
In Conversation With: PharmaStars' Naomi Fried and Laura Gunn
Show Notes Transcript

Andrew Kris is joined by Naomi Fried and Laura Gunn, founders of PharmaStars, to discuss digital health startups, the way they communicate with and speak the same language as pharmaceutical companies, and how pharma companies can find the best way to engage with digital health startups.

Andrew Kris:

Hello everybody and welcome to Borderless Executive Live. This is session 11. And today we're going to be focusing on digital health startups and the way that they're able to communicate and speak the same language as pharmaceutical companies. In turn, we'll also be covering how pharma companies can find the best way to engage digital health startups. Helping us through that process are two executives, Naomi Fried and Laura Gunn, they have a brand new startup called PharmStars. o, let me introduce you to the wo of them.

Naomi Fried:

Thank you, Andrew. It's my pleasure, and I want to thank you again for inviting Laura and I to join you today and to give us the opportunity to share with you what we're doing at PharmStars. To really xplain how we came to this dea, I need to share a little it of my background with you ecause it's really an evolution ver time. So just by way of ackground, I was trained as a cientist and engineer, got nvolved with a series of early tage healthcare startups, and hen was actually recruited to aiser Permanente where I became he first Vice President of nnovation and Advanced echnology. And our program here was really focused on dentifying emerging echnologies and introducing hem into the organization. I hen had the honor and privilege f becoming the first Chief nnovation Officer of Boston hildren's Hospital, where we uilt the Innovation cceleration Program. And our oal at Boston Children's was to elp the doctors and nurses test nd develop new ideas. From oston Children's I was ecruited to Biogen to help them evelop their innovation beyond he molecule strategy, and think bout how digital health could e applied and used to bring ore value to the patients in heir therapeutics. I left iogen and set up my own onsulting practice and I began o advise large healthcare rganizations, including harmaceutical companies on the igital health strategy and nnovation programs. And it ecame very clear that there was lot of interest in using igital health innovation by harmaceutical companies to try o bring more value to their atients. I also was working ith a lot of startups, I'm a enture capitalist, and saw that here was great interest in tartups bringing their nnovations in digital health to harmaceutical companies around partnership. But what I was lso noticing is that there eren't a lot of partnerships appening, that it wasn't so asy for these two types of rganizations to get together.

Andrew Kris:

Yeah, they're on a different scale, of course.

Naomi Fried:

Oh, totally. And so I came to sort of observe what I call the "pharma startup gap." And it was the desire to bridge this gap, the differences in these two organizations, that led me to create PharmStars. ur goal is really to bridge his gap and bring these rganizations together. And when ou start a new program, a new ompany, it's always wonderful o have a partner, someone you an think with and plan with, augh with and enjoy building. nd that's where Laura came in.

Laura Gunn:

So by way of background, I started out in academia, I was the lab scientist, and relatively early in my career, I transitioned from the lab into industry. I really saw the capability of industry to be an important translational bridge to the work being done in academia to then potentially benefit patients. So I worked in the diagnostic industry and then in the pharmaceutical industry, and I've since spent the last 18 years or so in the pharma and diagnostic industries. Most recently, I've been working at Biogen for about the last nine years in a number of different roles. I was the Chief Learning Officer and held a number of different leadership positions in a medical affairs organization. In my time at Biogen, I have observed exactly what Naomi had described, which is pharma companies who are committed to bringing value to patients beyond the pill. Many companies have shifted to focus on treating the whole patient rather than just the disease or symptoms, which means a tremendous potential for digital health. But there are barriers which are preventing them from achieving the kind of adoption that we've seen in other areas of healthcare. So I was delighted to join Naomi and launch PharmStars and bring hat inside view from the pharma erspective to the table and ork together to try to drive reater adoption in pharmacy to eet the needs of patients.

Andrew Kris:

Well, that's really, that's a wonderful venture to do. And of course, it's really critical both for pharma, and of course, for a lot of these digital health startups. Plenty of great ideas out there, how to realize them, I guess, you'll be putting in the language that makes them, the vocabulary to use to attract each other. I mean, I think in a recent article you wrote you identified that challenge for digital health startups, here they are, they're talking at each other very often not really understanding how each other works, perhaps. How do you think you're going to fill that gap? Because that's the gap I think PharmStars is bridging right ow.

Naomi Fried:

So, Andrew, throughout my career, I have been supporting digital health innovation on the provider side. And even on the payer side, I've worked with various pharma and biotech companies on the digital health strategy. And as I mentioned, I'm also an advisor to various startups. I've long been passionate about digital health. I've been an evangelist. And from my vantage point, the pharma industry has been a little bit behind the curve in terms of digital health adoption. We haven't seen a lot of great pharma digital health startup partnerships to speak of, but there's great reasons, wonderful reasons for them to get together. I mean, the benefit is clear, as I mentioned before, pharma can access these digital health innovations that will help them deliver drugs faster and bring more value to the patients if they partner with these innovative companies. And there's a lot pharma has to offer to digital health startups. I think what startups are excited about are the tremendous access to the sales and marketing channels that pharma has. The the way that they can connect with patients and doctors. And pharma companies have an amazing and deep understanding of developing regulated products and working in a regulated environment, obviously, dealing with the FDA, and they're very disciplined and focused on science and data. So partnering with pharma will provide startups with all sorts of benefits. And did I mention resources? Pharma tends to have deeper pockets, you know, but despite these benefits, it's been really hard to get pharma and startups together. And I think there's a variety of reasons for this pharma startup gap. I think there's differences in culture, language as you mentioned, and even different expectations and approaches to timelines and processes. Where pharma is, well most of time, big and well resourced, they're regulated, process driven and they're pretty risk averse. But startups, on the other hand, are sort of agile, they're focused on bringing something to market, they may make some mistakes, but they quickly pivot. I sort of think of startups like speedboats and pharmaceutical companies like aircraft carriers. Very different. Even the way they look at timing. For startups, time is of the essence, they think in terms of weeks or months versus years or even decades for pharma. And I think there can be a mismatch in expectations in terms of these timelines, requirements, even deal structure, which is a pretty big one. And it's this mismatch in perspective and expectations that cause deals to fall apart or sometimes even fail to get off the ground in the first place. Andrew, through our PharmStars "Pharma U" rogram that we actually plan to ddress both sides of the pharma tartup gap.

Andrew Kris:

Pharma U is an education area, right?

Naomi Fried:

Yes, yes.

Andrew Kris:

Is that is that only for the startups? Or is it also for pharma companies?

Naomi Fried:

Great question. So, it's for both. We have a comprehensive, tailored curriculum and individualized mentoring to teach the startups how to work with and approach pharma. But we also provide workshops and programs for our pharma members to help them deal with some of the issues they face internally, trying to work with digital health startups.

Andrew Kris:

And what would be the kind of issues they're facing internally? It's that it's not invented here?

Naomi Fried:

Yeah. So, not invented here, or build versus buy is one of the big issues they wrestle with. There's also a lot of challenges. I think, internally with the legal and regulatory groups who are unfamiliar with how things happen in digital health, who again, are used to sometimes a different speed, they can be very cautious. So we hope to do programming to support our members, champion how to work internally and help educate and socialize their internal partners on expectations, and again, language and culture, in and around working with digital health startups.

Andrew Kris:

Is PharmStars a usiness you'd think of as kind f having a mission? How do you ee yourself? Like flag bearers or particular direction? Or how oes it all fit together?

Laura Gunn:

Well, I think our mission is really, as Naomi said, to bring these two sides together, what we really want to do is facilitate and accelerate successful partnerships between the digital health startups and pharma to lead to greater success for each side and faster adoption of digital health to improve patient outcomes. And what this really means is we need to support two sides. It's a two way street when we talk about partnerships. And so in addition to what we're offering for the startups, we offer support for the pharma side as well.

Andrew Kris:

Okay, so how does it work in practice? What's the structure you're building to be able to do that?

Laura Gunn:

We have multiple components to the structure of PharmStars. From the startup ide, our startups apply online o participate and we then elect the 10 most innovative to articipate in a 10 startup ohort. Our startups participate hen in a 10 week educational nd mentoring program, which we ust discussed as Pharm U, which s short for Pharma University. nd Pharma U then culminates in private member's only howcase. The showcase event is here our groomed startups resent their refined pitches to ur pharma members, and then at hat point may have one on one eetings with members. One mportant thing about our ccelerator is we don't take any quity in our startups. We're ot involved in the deals or artnerships between the tartups and the members. We ring them together and we leave he rest to them. And we are hen supported by our pharma embers.

Andrew Kris:

So what you're saying is not vested in either side, right? It's a more neutral position. Is that the plan?

Laura Gunn:

Exactly, we bring them together and we let the magic happen.

Andrew Kris:

So is that what makes PharmStars unique in the ay that you're operating?

Naomi Fried:

Well, I think there are a lot of accelerators out there, Andrew, and there's a couple things that make us different. First of all, just looking at the types of accelerators, there's many tech oriented accelerators, even some healthcare ones and a few that specialize in digital health. But when it comes to digital health accelerators, for startups who want to work with pharma, there are only a few out there. And those are generally proprietary. They're already part of a big pharma company that's running it, basically, the program, for their own exclusive benefits. So we're really different in that PharmStars is the first and nly nonproprietary digital ealth accelerator for startups ho want to work with pharma. nd this means all the pharma nd biotech companies that don't ant to invest millions of ollars and 10s of FTEs in uilding their own digital ealth accelerator now have a reat option. And a couple more hings about PharmStars that m ke us really unique, we are t e only accelerator in the s ace that has this c mprehensive curriculum that w 've been talking about at P arma U.

Andrew Kris:

And you wrote everything by yourselves, I guess, from basement.

Naomi Fried:

Yes. Yes. And as Laura mentioned, she's former Chief Learning Officer at Biogen, so she really knows a lot about how pharma works. And that's actually an important point for our mentoring, because we do the mentoring ourselves. And we're, we believe, the only accelerator that uses experienced pharma executives to do the mentoring. Most accelerators out there rely on an ad hoc volunteer mentor network, but not PharmStars. We hink you have to know pharma to e able to mentor digital health tartups about pharma. And hat's why we have very special entors involved with our Pharma .

Andrew Kris:

That's probably one of the reasons I would want to join you, right? In terms of how, because I'm getting you rather than some anonymous person providing a book to me? You've kind of got the scars to show it.

Naomi Fried:

We like to call it experience.

Andrew Kris:

Right. And so I can see how startups can learn from you. What's pharma gonna learn from you? I mean, surely, they're big boys and girls, they're been through this many, many times, as you have. Is there anything for them to learn?

Naomi Fried:

For sure. So, you know, Andrew, we know through really a lot of first hand experience in many conversations with pharma that they are coming to really appreciate the potential of digital health to transform their businesses and bring new value to their patients. And that digital health innovation is really critical if they're going to stay relevant and deliver value and remain competitive in their environment. And I think that there's also a growing appreciation that one of the most effective ways to incorporate digital innovations through partnerships, as we said, not so much building themselves, but really working with the startups. But that isn't as easy as it sounds. And this is where PharmStars brings alue to pharma, by helping them ealize their digital health oals. First of all, we provide hem with 10 vetted, groomed, entored startups per cohort, ach with cutting edge digital ealth innovation, and these tartups meet with our pharma embers and then are able to eally engage in meaningful iscussions that we think will ead to wonderful deals. Another hing that we offer our members s that we don't make them do a ot of work. We'd like to say hat membership is what we call "light lift" for our members. t won't add to their burden, we o the heavy lifting, we do the electing, the mentoring, dvising. Some other ccelerators actually ask their embers to do that. We don't. nd we really help our members et a jumpstart on their usiness development activities. nd another benefit to our harma members is this unique ducational opportunity that e've been talking about, the harma U for our members, which lso includes peer to peer earning for our pharma members. hese are in the private orkshops and seminars that we o. We know that there's nterest in understanding what's orked in other organizations. o we'll be facilitating those onversations in addition to ontent that we're presenting. nd I think we're really hearing hat there are some sort of niversal challenges. Because hat these digital health eaders are doing within their ompanies is really building an nnovation function inside a arger organization. They're ntroducing digital health to ompanies that traditionally ave built molecules. I think hat for the pharma companies, robably the most valuable piece s that the startups they are oing to meet through our rogram will actually understand he specific needs tha pharma trategy is. And also the tartups will know what to xpect through the deal making rocess. And it's just a remendous benefit that can't be nderestimated around working ith educated startups that peak the same language, they're n the same page, they have ppropriate expectations. And ur startups, the ones coming ut of PharmStars will be great artners for our members.

Andrew Kris:

Well, they certainly have been well educated in what matters and what doesn't to pharma companies, I can see that. In terms of the cohorts that you're putting together, digital health is a huge, wide field. Is there any kind of segmentation that you're doing in terms of who's in that first cohort? Are they all in the same type of domains? Or are they in a broad range of digital health domains? How are you doing that?

Laura Gunn:

Well, we've had an outpouring of interest from digital health startups, as well as applications from all over the world. And it's been incredibly gratifying to hear from so many startups, as well as pharma that they recognize the challenge of this pharma startup and appreciate the program that we're building to address it. We have a formal process for reviewing and accepting startups to participate in our first cohort. And there are really four main considerations. The first is fit. Startups must have a promising innovative digital health product that pharma can use. This needs to have applicability to pharma. The second is product stage. We want to make sure that the startups do have a developed product or at least a viable prototype so they can sit down at the end of the program and discuss a product or service that can be immediately adopted by pharma. The third is need. We really want to have startups participate in the program who have not yet broadly and successfully engaged pharma. We really think those that are interested engaging with pharma, but really haven't had that success yet, are the ones that could truly benefit the most from the education and the coaching that PharmStars offers. For 2021, all digital health startups with the innovative pharma solutions we just talked about, are welcome to apply to our first cohort. But priority is going to be given to startups with an innovative digital health solution that enhances and improves clinical trials. We want the cohort to be focused. And so by selecting the theme of clinical trials, we think we can bring in a number of innovations under this umbrella of clinical trials. So this would include innovations such as increased the speed and efficiency of clinical trials, optimizing trial participant recruitment and retention, but it also includes other capabilities, such as improved data collection, management, remote monitoring of trial participants, perhaps even solutions that help with adherence to medication. All of these things could have applications both within and beyond clinical trials. And future cohorts will have other thematic priorities, which we'll be thinking about in the very near future.

Andrew Kris:

So you don't have a stance that "Cohort Two will be in this particular area," you haven't worked that out yet, or?

Naomi Fried:

Our cohort, we'll run two cohorts, at least, in 2022. And our plan is actually to choose themes that really resonate and are meaningful to our members. So we plan to be in discussion with our members around what themes are most important to them. And these could be therapeutic themes, like oncology, or neurology or women's health, or they could be platform focused themes, such as innovations in patient education or remote monitoring. So that's sort of TBD.

Andrew Kris:

I'm really thrilled to see you guys taking it in such depth and I really hope that everything will work out well for you. It sounds like you're gathering enough interest. Do you think there's a risk that the pharmaceutical industry is going to be overwhelmed with digital health startups, or at least overwhelmed by the members that you're presenting to them?

Naomi Fried:

I think your point is great, Andrew, that there is tons of digital health innovation out there. I think that it's been hard for pharmaceutical companies to sift through all the startups out there, figure out which ones to work with, and how to work with them effectively. That's why we see so few deals being done. And those are all the types of things that we at PharmStars help our members with. So I think there's a real value add, and we are hoping to bring both sides together for more success.

Andrew Kris:

So if I was engaged in this area of interest within a pharmaceutical company, would I be able to come to you and say, "I'm really interested in this type of digital health solution?" Would you create a cohort? Or would you say, "we actually have one." How do I influence who you bring in from the digital health innovation side?

Naomi Fried:

So, we work together with our members as a group, and we make sure that there's enough interest across all the members and we are already seeing that there is a lot of commonality in strategy and so we think we can meet our members needs with each cohort and we already have, Andrew, four founding pharma members. We are supported by Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Cicada, and they've been really wonderful to work with. They've been terrific thought partners, they've helped us shape our program so far. And we're really looking to our future members for input on the cohort themes, as well as feedback, we're learning also, but feedback on our plans for the startups with the curriculum for executive add. We're accepting additional members now and will continue through the end of the summer. We're very well equipped to support a broad array of pharma sizes and stages and interests. And we're looking forward to having a diverse array of members because as I said before, they also have the opportunity to learn from each other. And we think that's a very unique offering.

Andrew Kris:

I think you guys are really on to some really interesting areas to try and bridge this gap between these two innovative sectors. Laura, and Naomi, you've been talking about all these wonderful things you got to do the 2022, 2021 cohorts. How does that look like from a timing point of view? What are your plans now for the rest of this year and next year?

Laura Gunn:

Time is flying, and we're really excited about what our plans will be for the rest of 2021. We officially launched PharmStars on June 1, and since then, we have been open for applications. We are still accepting applications from startups around the entire world until July 21. We will then be reviewing those applications and startups will be accepted into the program and will be notified on around August 23, 2021. Pharma U will formally begin on September 1 and continue to November 10. And then the showcase events, the capstone event we mentioned to you, is expected to be held at the end of Pharma U and will be held between probably November 10 to December 10. Somewhere in that timeframe, the exact date and format, if we're going to do it live or virtual, is TBD, obviously taking into consideration a number of factors, but we'll be announcing when the showcase will occur and what the format of that will be in the coming months.

Naomi Fried:

I would just add, at least for the first cohort, possibly for future cohorts, our program is virtual, which gives us tremendous flexibility in terms of the startups that can participate. We do have classes twice a week, we ask for live participation, but it can be virtual live participation. And we've actually, Andrew, been getting a lot of inquiries from around the world, that our program is very much focused on the US market and what's happening in the US in the pharmaceutical industry. There's a lot of interest from startups globally. And we think we probably will have a pretty diverse class for this first cohort.

Andrew Kris:

So, you're suggesting you're going to run everything on a global basis, or will you run US first and then move outside of the US?

Naomi Fried:

We're definitely starting with the US. And if we're successful, and there's a need, we will certainly consider expanding to other markets and locations.

Andrew Kris:

There's a huge amount of innovation going in some places you wouldn't think of automatically, I think there's a huge amount of digital technology being developed around the world in some of the major centers. So I'm sure you have plenty of opportunity to globalize your PharmStars business. I think you're off to a new wonderful adventure and on behalf of Borderless Executive, I just want to wish you both every success from all the patients that will be ultimately affected by the wonderful work that you're doing bringing these two communities together. Congratulations on your startup and wishing you every success. Thank you.

Naomi Fried:

Andrew, thank you. It's been a pleasure to be with you, too.

Andrew Kris:

Thank you. It's been lovely to listen to you too. Thanks very much.