The biotech company Bayer has adopted a new approach to R&D, opening its doors to new start-ups and researchers with innovative ideas. This inspiring success story of an Estonian start-up will hopefully encourage others to put forward their ideas.
Pharmaceutical companies are generally viewed as rather conservative. Eike Kingsepp, Corporate Communication Manager for Baltic countries, assures, however, that pharma has kept pace with changes brought about by the digital age. “Today the bulk of pharmaceutical research is done by computers and digital simulation. This side of our work remains largely hidden from the public. It is in new drug development that innovation makes the biggest difference. Today we can say that we have found the areas with the highest development potential,” says Kingsepp.
The global biotech group has become more open-minded and is taking every opportunity to tap into new ideas and innovative thinking. “At the global level, Bayer has launched several initiatives and competitions aiming to get young start-ups off the ground. The competitions, which started off in Europe, have by now become surprisingly popular all over the world. This makes us more accessible for start-ups. Our initiatives open up opportunities for people and companies who would otherwise be kept out of the industry by the strict regulatory criteria,” says Kingsepp.
Medikeep: a success story backed by Bayer
The Estonia-based Medikeep is a good example of how a digital health start-up who received support and funding from Bayer is all set to conquer the world. Kingsepp explains that Medikeep has developed ‘a pharmacy in your pocket’ – a medication management app that allows people to keep track of medication taking by themselves and their family members. The app also helps users keep an inventory of the contents of their home medicine cabinets. “The founders of Medikeep participated in the competition last year and were one of the five companies selected for the Bayer accelerator programme. They spent three intensive months at Bayer offices in Berlin where they received mentoring by Bayer experts and worked mainly on backing up their product with a variety of activities from effective presentation to business plan development. In March they should release a new version of their product with which they hope to reach the global market,” says Kingsepp.
She explains that while the manufacturing process of pharmaceutical drugs is strictly regulated and supervised, not much is known about what happens after the patient leaves the pharmacy with the medication. “Surveys have shown that medication non-adherence and lack of control over whether regimens are followed as due are common problems. Non-adherence to antibiotic treatment is a particularly important issue.”
It is important to understand why patients stop taking their medications: is it because of side effects (side effects are currently not included in the Medikeep app but might be in the future), do patients simply forget to take them (the app offers a reminder feature) or do patients just feel they have to take too many medications and decide to change the dosage themselves. The whole field of medication compliance needs support and Medikeep has taken a step towards providing it,” says Kingsepp.
She underlines the continuing importance of patient empowerment: “Medikeep is not just another calendar but a mobile app capable of influencing the patients’ behaviour. The patients should be able to share the information with the doctor, which may bring about a change in the patient’s behaviour. Sending information from the app or the device to the doctors should become easier: in case of a blood pressure monitor, for example, performing the measurement is not enough if the patient does not know how to set the monitor up for use or if there is no communication link with the doctor. Home diagnostics is a fast-developing field and we need to ask how all the information should be organised and who will analyse it.”
Start-ups and global corporations share the same goals
Kingsepp recalls an interview by Medikeep founder and manager Kerti Alev where she compared a small start-up to a punk band and a corporation to a large orchestra – at the end of the day, they both make music. “They have so many interfaces that we should focus on our common goals rather than differences. The pharmaceutical industry has an image – NEMCaps partially deserved – of a rather closed and detached sector. We should be more open as we need the information and knowledge from outside and we also wish to show that we are not an enclosed microcosm living a life of its own. We are part of the society and our products are designed to help people,” says Kingsepp, comparing small and large enterprises.
This new way of thinking has led to the launch of several funding programmes by Bayer. Grants4Apps – the programme in which Medikeep participated – is a global funding initiative. The other four winning projects came from the US, Germany, Canada and China. “A new round of the programme is now open for submissions and we encourage all health technology start-ups to participate. We hope to see also other healthcare solutions besides mobile apps, such as medical devices,” says Kingsepp.
The Grants4Indication programme focuses on drug development. “Grants are offered to young scientists with ideas for new indications using Bayer compounds. Today 85% of new drugs come from established pharmaceutical companies, a small share from universities and even a smaller share from other sources. We would like to see a change here and new ideas coming in from outside the established pharma industry. Bayer wishes to be more accessible and to open R&D doors for those who might otherwise get lost in the overly bureaucratic system. Patient safety of course remains a key concern – it is with good reason that the pharmaceutical industry is heavily regulated and with high entry barriers,” says Kingsepp.
Looking into the future, Bayer intends
to increase its presence in Estonia, participate more in the society and contribute more significantly to the healthcare system. “As a small country open to change, we can test new technologies and then share our lessons with others – what needs to be changed and how could our mistakes be avoided,” says Kingsepp.