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Using big data for a healthy return

21 November 2014

The article at a glance

Listen to some industry commentators and you’d think big data was the answer to life, the universe and everything. But if you …

Category: Insight

Listen to some industry commentators and you’d think big data was the answer to life, the universe and everything. But if you were in charge of a big data source in the pharmaceutical sector, how would you actually use it to increase revenue?

Hand pressing modern medical button

Almost everyone agrees that big data has the potential to make enormous impact on the life sciences sector – but surprisingly few people are willing to outline how data will increase revenues in the long term.

To find out what two key players in the pharma/healthcare industries would do, Pam Garside, a partner at management consultancy Newhealth and Cambridge Judge Business School Fellow, posed the following question: “You’ve just been put in charge of big data at a medium-sized pharmaceutical company. A rich, longitudinal patient database is accessible and the clean-up job is done. But what next? What would you do with it?” Here’s what they said.

Dr Michel Wenger (Cambridge MBA 2010), PricewaterhouseCoopers

Dr Michel Wenger
Dr Michel Wenger

First it is important to look at two different business models in pharma. Are you delivering drugs and having a good outlook in terms of the pipeline, or are you trying to change your business model to that of a holistic healthcare service provider, lovingly called a “platform” by the latter companies?

Of course, patients need both of these business models, but if every single pharma company were to transform their business into a platform, we would be in for a big surprise in a decade or so, with our big therapeutic milestones further away than ever.

You could say that each business model uses data in a different way and therefore warrants a separate answer. The classic business model of delivering a drug to benefit the patient (be it personalised or not) could, with the right amount of the right manpower, turn the big data into statistically significant studies of different designs, ultimately serving patient safety, outcomes and quality of life. It would allow these companies to evaluate drugs from the past, present and future, and help to identify new variables that affect the patient-drug “relationship” not yet known to the industry.

The companies that seek to provide an integrated healthcare platform could draw from a vast amount of invaluable data, creating services tailored to the target patient population and have a massive impact on their quality of life. They would do this by identifying new approaches to known medical issues or coming up with ways of dealing with the unsolved problems of providing such healthcare services.

In both business models, big data will allow for a more efficient three-sided network that should be at the core of any healthcare service proposal – patients-industry-healthcare professionals which then links back to patients. It really is as simple as that.

In comparison to all the internal data we gather, the amount of external data out there is massive, and with social media growing and growing I can’t see how that relationship will decline in the future. In a way, Google is showing us how it is done with various projects – recently with the Baseline project for example – and they seem to outperform health authorities by virtue of the sheer amount of data available to them, as seen in the “Google Flu Trends”.

In conclusion, mankind’s willingness to share information through the Internet presents us with a big opportunity to help us improve every aspect of healthcare, and will complete with, if not outperform, internal big data in the near future.

Dr Michel Wenger is a Manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers in M&A Advisory, Business Services, Healthcare and Pharmaceutical. Having studied medicine in Germany and practised as a doctor in Switzerland and the NHS, his recent career in health service business development has also included the role of Head Of Innovation within Medical Directorate at University Hospital, Bern. As well as his medical qualifications he holds an MBA from Cambridge Judge Business School.


Dr Stephen Dowd (Cambridge MBA 2010), Kymab

Dr Stephen Dowd
Dr Stephen Dowd

I would partner with a world-leading centre of genomic research such as the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute in Cambridge. I would invest in decoding the genomes of everyone on the database. As the cost drops below $1,000 per genome, the approach becomes economically viable and would identify genes involved in specific disease processes. This would enable the company to develop new medicines precisely directed to these aberrant processes and halt them at a molecular level.

This information is hugely valuable to large pharmaceutical companies. For example, Amgen, with a market capitalisation of $125bn, made a $415m acquisition of a small biotech that has a large dataset containing 70,000 individual genomes.

The value of the genomic data will be captured as new drugs are developed using it. The most iconic example is that of the PCSK9 gene identified as master controller of bad cholesterol levels. Next year, a number of game-changing, cholesterol-busting PCSK9 drugs will launch with sales that are expected to exceed $10bn. At Kymab, we are using similar approaches to mine human genomic data to gain important insights and guide our own drug R&D strategy.

Longer term I would partner with companies collecting data on consumer behaviour. Linking up behaviour with genomes and how they influence health outcomes on a population-based scale would be immensely powerful. Understanding the interplay between nature and nurture and how this impacts human health will accelerate the discovery of new medicines, direct prescribing behaviour, personalise medicine and transform health policy.

One of the key hurdles to realising this vision is the distrust the general public has of both governments and private companies to hold sensitive data.

However, as societal attitudes shift towards the enormous benefits and through working closely with doctors and national health organisations, I believe this noble mission will be realised.

Ultimately, it’s about reducing human suffering and improving people’s lives. We are at the dawn of a hugely exciting time in biology and big data has an enormous role to play.

Dr Stephen Dowd has 17 years’ experience in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors. He is Director of Business Development at Kymab, a biopharmaceutical company that discovers and develops human monoclonal antibody therapeutics and vaccines to serious diseases using its pioneering technology. He has a PhD in Molecular Cell Biology and an MBA from Cambridge Judge Business School.

Pam Garside is currently the Coach of the Health Strategies concentration, on offer as part of the Cambridge MBA.

Learn more about the Cambridge MBA

Read more about the Health Strategies concentration

Visit Pam Garside’s profile


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