Big Pharma Is Innovating With Social Media -- Really

When big pharma leverages technology, open data and social media to develop innovative patient-facing apps, it's a win to the fourth power.
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There's something exciting happening in the healthcare industry. In the past year there's been an uptick in big pharmaceutical (and other large healthcare) companies' encouragement of innovation that leverages technology, open data and -- wait for it -- social media. It's inspiring unusual collaborations, new companies, and -- most importantly -- some great offerings for people in all walks of health.

We often think big companies, and big pharma in particular, don't "get it." I recently attended the Health Care Innovations Summit in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, January 26, and was thrilled, and admittedly a bit floored, to see that notion belied.

The resounding themes of the conference, hosted by the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation and West Wireless Health Institute, were innovation and open data. During the Summit, seven challenges were announced with prizes ranging from $50,000 to $100,000. The kicker is that the prizes are being offered by some of the behemoths of healthcare -- the likes of Pfizer and Sanofi -- to anyone willing to develop an idea, precisely to encourage innovation.

The tangible results -- new apps, products, and startups -- are exciting, of course, but the internal impact on the big companies sponsoring the challenges may result in something even more ground-breaking: a change in how they develop new platforms and interact with partners.

Dennis Urbaniak (@DUrbaniak), VP of U.S. Diabetes at Sanofi-Aventis says that their offering of a $100,000 prize has "yielded ideas in six months that would have taken four to five years to develop at ten times the cost." The growth and success of their 2011 challenge winner,, a behavior analytics company that helps patients and healthcare enterprises manage diseases, is looking like it's not just a flash in the pan. It now has seven employees and has gone on to raise $1.7 million in seed financing led by True Ventures. A number of the runner-ups to Sanofi's 2011 challenge went on to receive seed funding as well. Urbaniak says that the program and its speedy results have attracted the attention of others within Sanofi, and similar programs are in development.

Sanofi is continuing to innovate even the challenge process by conducting a preliminary crowdsourcing the question "What matters most?" about diabetes leading up to their 2012 challenge (Data Design Diabetes™). Just so we're all clear -- a big pharma company is asking patients, physicians, and anyone else who cares what they think matters most about diabetes and that pharma company is putting up money to external developers to come up with ideas to address the problem as the crowd would like to see it addressed. Let's just take that in for a second, because it's huge.

When big pharma leverages technology, open data and social media to develop innovative patient-facing apps, it's a win to the fourth power (i.e., a win-win-win-win). They win with faster, better, and more efficient ideas; they win again if they apply lessons from the process to other aspects of their organization; start-ups win by getting both a big partner with a vested interest in their success and key early attention; and, most importantly, the patients win with more innovative tools and services.

And that's the great thing about pharma getting it. We all benefit.

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