Lifesciences IoT opportunity – will privacy issues slow it down?

This week I met with an executive from Biogen. We spent time discussing their business, the usual areas where covered: how they were dealing with the patent cliff, their diversification of offerings, how they were working internationally to name a few. But the one area that really got my juices flowing was when we touched upon how IoT impacts the pharmaceutical space. From my discussion it appears that there are two interesting plays for IoT in pharmaceuticals.

  • The first is in their supply chain. From manufacturing, to storage and distribution, IoT holds great promise. No surprise as we see a large majority of manufacturers across a large spectrum, leaning on IoT to provide data that leads to greater efficiencies within their supply chains. For heavily regulated industries such as pharmaceuticals, the promise IoT holds out with regards to greater visibility as well as enhanced track and trace addresses a key issue these companies must address. Unlike a clothing manufacturer where a defect lot can lead to lost sales or a public relations night mare (think Lululemon’s recall with transparent yoga pants) if a pharmaceutical company has a defective batch of products the potential results are much more serious. They could have dangerous even fatal consequences for the end user. For the manufacturer or distributor they are under threat of heavy fines and even arrest. Not what either the end consumer of the manufacturer wants. Pharmaceutical companies, if they aren’t already, should be looking at IoT solutions that can allow them to secure the handling of their products. For example leveraging sensors that can monitor how product is handled through the transportation nodes: was it maintained at the proper temperature or was the container properly handled: Sensors could also be leveraged to ensure that there was no tampering with the product. Of course sensors can also be used in the manufacturing process to measure and optimize the factory process.
  • The second potential usage of IoT is with the product itself. Now this is where there is the potential for some great insights and good, but also raises a potential red flag. Companies like Merck are already talking about and exploring the development of “digestables.” That is right, IoT enabled drugs or devices that consumers would eat. The hope is that the data that we can extract from these products revolves around how the drugs interact with our bodies, how are they truly interacting and simply if they are being taken properly (read as doctors tell us to!). From a medical devices perspective we already see companies like Boston Scientific who make pace makers that are IoT enabled. Anyone who is a fan of the HBO show, Homeland, knows the potential risk that poses! Much of this is only being tested in the labs or thought about in development meetings, but it does bring up the question about privacy. An enormity that might hold back IoT is how is the data going to be handled and protected? There are already rumblings around simple data that our iPhones or Fitbits collect about how many steps we took today, our heart rates or how many calories we burned. What happens when there are devices that are throwing off data about the health of our intestines, how often we go to the bathroom or if we are showing early signs of diabetes? Richie Etwaru has a wonderful model for IoT where as the IoT enabled product gets physically closer to a person’s heart, the greater the possible issues, especially around privacy. Digestables might be just a few inches away from the heart…from the inside.

Pharmaceutical companies should absolutely be exploring how to leverage IoT. When it comes to managing their supply chain, they are a prime industry to unlock the greater visibility and monitoring of the processes within the supply chain. The real issue is when pharmaceuticals start to productize IoT what will the privacy ramifications be? They better start thinking and preparing for this issue today.

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Filed under IoT, Supply Chain

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