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PharmStars: A New Approach to Accelerating Digital Health-Pharma Partnership
Episode

Naomi Fried and Laura Gunn of Pharmstars

PharmStars: A New Approach to Accelerating Digital Health-Pharma Partnership

In this Pharma Outcomes Rocket episode, we are privileged to have two special guests. Naomi Fried is the founder and CEO of Pharmstars and Laura Gunn is the Managing Director of Pharmstars,  the first pharma-focused accelerator for digital health startups.

Naomi and Laura discuss how Pharmstars address the gap between pharma manufacturers and startups. They share how the accelerator educates and mentors startups, how it facilitates and accelerates successful partnerships, how it reduces the gap between pharma and digital health startups, and more. They also talk of the Pharmstars leverage as the only accelerator in the space with a comprehensive curriculum that’s built and tailored for digital health startups that want to work with pharma.

If you are a startup looking to learn more about pharma or a pharma manufacturer looking to improve your digital health innovations, this interview is for you. Please tune in!

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PharmStars: A New Approach to Accelerating Digital Health-Pharma Partnership

About Naomi Fried

Naomi is the founder and CEO of Pharmstars, the first pharma-focused accelerator for digital health startups. She is also a managing partner and co-founder at Ambit Health Ventures, a VC fund focused on early-stage digital health investments. Previously, Naomi was the CEO of the boutique advisory firm Health Innovation Strategies, which assisted large health care organizations with innovation program design and optimization, digital health strategy, and innovation activities. Previous to that, she has extensive innovation experience on the pharma side and the provider side of the business.

About Laura Gunn

Laura Gunn is the Managing Director of Pharmstars. She is a pharmaceutical executive with over 15 years of experience across the pharmaceutical industry. Most recently, Laura was at Biogen, where she held several leadership positions, including head of scientific partnership and Chief Learning Officer. Before transitioning to pharma, she worked and published in both industry and academic positions in the area of diagnostics, biomarker technologies, and emerging biomarker discovery. She holds a Ph.D. in toxicology and molecular epidemiology from the University of California, Berkeley, with expertise in scientific communication, learning, and the business of pharma. She is passionate about finding novel solutions for complicated problems.

PharmStars: A New Approach to Accelerating Digital Health-Pharma Partnership with Naomi Fried and Laura Gunn of Pharmstars: Audio automatically transcribed by Sonix

PharmStars: A New Approach to Accelerating Digital Health-Pharma Partnership with Naomi Fried and Laura Gunn of Pharmstars: this mp3 audio file was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the best speech-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors.

Kyle Wildnauer-Haigney:
Everyone, this is Kyle Wildnauer-Haigney, host of the Outcomes Rocket Pharma podcast. Today, I have the distinct pleasure of welcoming two guests Naomi Fried and Laura Gunn. Naomi Fried is the founder and CEO of PharmStars, the first pharma-focused accelerator for digital health startups. She is also a managing partner and co-founder at Ambit Health Ventures, a VC fund focused on early-stage digital health investments. Previously, Naomi was the CEO of the boutique advisory firm Health Innovation Strategies, which assisted large health care organizations with innovation program design and optimization, digital health strategy, and innovation activities. Previous to that, she has extensive innovation experience on the pharma side and the provider side of the business. Laura Gunn is the Managing Director of PharmStars. Laura is a pharmaceutical executive with over 15 years of experience across the pharmaceutical industry. Most recently, Laura was at Biogen, where she held several leadership positions, including head of scientific partnership and Chief Learning Officer. Before transitioning to pharma, she worked and published in both industry and academic positions in the area of diagnostics, biomarker technologies, and emerging biomarker discovery. She holds a Ph.D. in toxicology and molecular epidemiology from the University of California, Berkeley, with expertise in scientific communication, learning, and the business of pharma. She is passionate about finding novel solutions for complicated problems. Thank you both for joining the show today.

Naomi Fried:
Thank you, Kyle. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Laura Gunn:
Thank you, Kyle.

Kyle Wildnauer-Haigney:
Awesome. Well, you know, maybe to kick things off and introduce you to the audience. I’d love to hear what inspires your work in health care and how did you get where you are today?

Naomi Fried:
Well, thanks for the great question, Kyle, and I’ll kick it off. So you mentioned my background and I’ve really been involved in digital health as an evangelist for many, many years before it was even called digital health back when it was actually called e-health. And I built a program at Kaiser Permanente when I was the first Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Jones Hospital. I built the Digital Health Accelerator and the telehealth program. And it was really, though, when I was recruited to Biogen to come over and develop their innovation beyond the molecule that I began to appreciate what the digital health revolution was going to do to pharma and how transformative it would become. And then through my consulting work, where I began to advise pharmaceutical companies on their digital health strategy, I came to see that there was a lot of interest across many different pharmaceutical companies in developing an innovation beyond the molecule strategy. And similarly, I’ve been working with startups my whole life, and I could see that there were many new innovations being developed by digital health startups, and many of these startups wanted to engage Big Pharma as a partner, as a customer, as a client. And so there was great interest on both sides to do partnerships and to do deals. But there weren’t a lot of deals seem to be done, and there weren’t a lot of successful deals that anyone could point to. And that’s where I sort of became aware of this what I’ve come to call the pharma startup gap, the chasm that keeps pharma and startups from actually getting together and partnering successfully. And so when I realized that there was this pharma startup gap, I thought that I could help build something to bridge that gap. And that was really the idea behind PharmStars that we would create a bridge to bring together pharma and digital health startups so that they could work more successfully together. Now, you know, when you’re building something new, it’s really great to have a partner, and that’s where Laura comes in. And together we’ve been building and launching Pharmstars, which is, as you mentioned, a global accelerator for digital health startups seeking pharma clients and customers.

Kyle Wildnauer-Haigney:
Wow. Yeah, that’s I mean, from my perspective in the industry, it’s such a big gap between pharma manufacturers wanting to engage with these digital health startups and the startups really knowing how to position themselves so that they can be an effective partner for these pharma manufacturers. And so maybe one question I’d love to dig in a little bit deeper is how does this accelerator actually work?

Laura Gunn:
So, as Naomi said PharmStars is a digital health accelerator specifically for digital health startups who want to work with Pharma. So PharmStars has its own ecosystem, and the ecosystem is composed of three major stakeholders – the digital health startups, our pharma members and the PharmStars team. Startups apply online to participate and. We select the 10 most innovative startups to participate in a 10 startup cohort. Our startups then participate in a 10 week educational and mentoring program, which we refer to is PharmaU, so Pharma University, and PharmaU has three components. The first component is a comprehensive curriculum very similar to a college course. The second component is personalized mentoring, and the third component is actually for our pharma members. It is executive education for our members. PharmaU culminates with a private members only showcase event, and at the showcase, our groomed startups who have now completed the program present their refined pitches to our pharma members. And at that point, they may have one on one meetings with the members at the showcase event. One thing I want to point out is that unlike other accelerators, we do not take equity in our startups, nor are we involved in any deals or partnerships between the startups and members. Rather, we are supported by our pharma members.

Kyle Wildnauer-Haigney:
I love that. I think there’s so many accelerators out there that occasionally, you know, have some onerous equity stakes and investments, and it sounds like you are really focused on being entrepreneur friendly in attracting those best businesses. I’d love to better understand. What are some of the themes that you’re seeing of startups who are joining PharmStars?

Laura Gunn:
There are so many digital health startups out there and many, many that want to engage pharma across all different therapeutic areas and platforms. So actually, our approach is to create cohorts that focus around certain topics or themes, and we look to our pharmaceutical members to tell us what their biggest unmet need is or what area they are most eager to partner with digital health startups. So for our first cohort, our theme is clinical trial innovation. But we consider this a very broad theme, and we certainly are looking at startups and then going include startups that have innovations in around patient recruitment and retention. But clinical trials can also be enhanced and improved by better medication adherence, improved methods of data collection, use of real world evidence and remote patient monitoring. So there’s a lot of topics and a broad variety of digital health solutions that fall under this umbrella. We haven’t figured out what our themes are for next year. That’ll depend again, as I said on our our members interests, but we’re really seeing all sorts of very exciting new digital health innovations across the spectrum.

Kyle Wildnauer-Haigney:
Fascinating. I’m really excited to see how some of those businesses who graduate from the PharmStars accelerator, how they take off in the market. I’d love to just better understand how you articulate the unique value that you’re adding to the health care ecosystem.

Laura Gunn:
There is, we believe, a digital health revolution underway and digital health is transforming health care. It’s changing the way care is delivered. It’s changing communication, even offering fundamental new therapies that didn’t exist before. The power of digital health is tremendous, and pharma gets this. They are interested in this beyond the molecule solution. We also know through experience in many conversations that while pharma companies are coming to appreciate the potential digital health to transform their businesses and bring new types of value to the patients they serve, they also are beginning to recognize that digital health innovation is critical to their staying relevant to delivering more and better value and even to remaining competitive. So, you know, the digital health startups want to engage with pharma, but the pharma startup gap that I mentioned before is thriving, and this is the chasm that makes partnerships and deals difficult. And we think that the pharma startup gap exists because startups and pharma basically have very different cultures. You know, pharma is careful, very oriented towards safety, risk averse. They have a lot of process. They move slowly, often and very methodically and carefully. Whereas digital health startups are software companies that are agile, they build products quickly. Sometimes they don’t get it right the first time. That’s OK. They pivot and change. Just in terms of timing, start ups move at a speed that is unheard of for a lot of pharmaceutical companies, and this can often mean differences in expectations around deliverables, even language. So there’s a lot that goes into that makes up this pharma startup gap, and this is where we’re really hoping to deliver a lot of value to the industry. We have built the PharmStars accelerator to address this pharma startup gap to build a bridge, to shrink the gap, to bring these two groups that are basically in different universes together so that they can both benefit, and we really think that our mission as an accelerator is to facilitate and accelerate successful partnerships between digital health startups and pharma, ultimately leading to greater success for each and hopefully faster adoption of digital health for the improvement of patient outcomes.

Kyle Wildnauer-Haigney:
Sounds great. I mean, such a huge gap. We keep on going back to this pharma startup gap have idea and concept. I mean, today, though, how do startups typically address this? Or I guess to put it in a different way, shat is it that PharmStars does differently than what is available today?

Naomi Fried:
That’s a great question, Kyle, and thank you for asking. So, you know, there are a lot of accelerators out there already, particularly in the tech space. There’s certainly some in health care and even a handful that specialize in digital health, which is great. But when it comes to digital health accelerators for startups that want to work with pharma, there’s only a few out there and they’re generally proprietary. They’re built by a pharma company, and they’re running those programs for their own benefit. So PharmStars is really the first and only non-proprietary digital health accelerator for startups that want to do business with pharma. And so for all the pharma and biotech companies that don’t want to invest millions of dollars every year and have tens of FTDs and build their own digital health accelerator, we’re a great option. But even more than that, PharmStars is the only accelerator in the space with a comprehensive curriculum that’s built and tailored for digital health startups that want to work with pharma. We actually teach the startups about the pharma industry, how pharma firms are organized, what they think about, what keeps them up at night. Our curriculum includes tons of practical advice for startups that want to really enhance their experience, improve the likelihood of success when engaging with pharma. And we’re also the only accelerator with a curriculum for pharma that want to engage more successfully with digital health startups because we want to address both sides of that pharma startup gap. And I would also add that the mentoring program that we have that helps startups focus on what they really need to know about pharma partnerships, our mentors are all experienced form of pharma executives, so unlike a lot of other accelerators, we do not rely on an ad hoc volunteer mentor network. We think you have to really know and understand pharma to be able to mentor digital health startups about pharma. So I think we are really unique and probably the premier destination for digital health startups that want to learn about and work with pharma and just really understand what they need to know to be successful in these types of deals.

Kyle Wildnauer-Haigney:
And I think one other inherent advantage that you have just hearing you talk about this program is that rather than working with one pharma manufacturer that might have their own set of considerations, you’re working across multiple different partners. And so you could really position the startups to understand what systems, processes, value props are scalable across a larger market versus what needs to be customized to an individual pharma. Is that right?

Naomi Fried:
That’s a great point, and we have, as I mentioned before, we have pharma members a growing list, and these are pharmaceutical companies that want to engage with startups that go through our program. And we have four founding members, Kyle. We are supported by Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly and company, Novo Nordisk and Takeda, and we’re very excited that they’ve already signed on to be members. We are in conversation with a number of other pharmaceutical companies and really want to grow our membership and make this program available to any pharmaceutical company that has a strong commitment to improving their digital health program and the way they engage with digital health startups.

Kyle Wildnauer-Haigney:
That’s great. I mean, those are four very innovative pharma manufacturers, and I’m sure that list is only going to continue to grow. When you kind of think and kind of fast forward into the future, how will what you do at PharmStars and accelerating these startups improve outcomes or make business on the pharma manufacturers side or the startup side better?

Laura Gunn:
That’s another great question, Kyle, as Naomi said earlier, you know, the goal of PharmStars is really to facilitate and accelerate more and better digital health deals by providing support to both sides of that pharmacy startup gap, both the pharma side and the startups. I think at a high level, more and better deals will mean greater adoption of digital health solutions, and that ultimately translates to better outcomes for patients. But we also see improvements for those members of our ecosystem. So the startups that participate in PharmStars benefit in numerous ways. Through Pharma University startups learn about rhe pharma ecosystem and how to successfully navigate pharma organizations. Startups will also receive that personalized mentoring to then assist them in preparing and articulating a value proposition in a way that truly resonates with pharma. Startups will then also meet our pharma members during the showcase event and be invited to have one on one meetings with them. Our pharma members champions are well versed in their firm’s digital health strategy, and they can really act as liaisons to connect the startups they’re interested in to the right people within their organization, so they act as a conduit to really connect the startups with that right point of contact. And finally, you know, the startups will have an opportunity to be part of a community with other pharma focused startups. We know that this is a unique niche within the startup community and building that community, we think, is something that will really be valuable for the startups, you know, now and into the future.

Laura Gunn:
And I would just add looking again the other side of the gap. There’s also tremendous benefits for our pharma members. You know, for pharma to incorporate digital health innovation, probably the best approach is through partnership, not through building internally. So working with digital health startups, but that just isn’t as easy as it sounds. And so Pharmastars really brings value to our pharma members by helping them realize the digital health goals at the end of each cohort. There are 10 vetted, groomed, mentored startups with really interesting cutting edge digital health innovations that our members are interested in. And so our pharma members benefit from working with these now educated startups that actually speak their language and are much more on the same page around expectations. And we think our startups will all be great partners. The other thing I’d say is that from a member perspective, PharmStars requires little work be done by our members. We like to sort of call membership a light lift. We’re not interested in adding to our Pharma members every day work. So we really do all the heavy lifting of finding and grooming these startups and sort of helping our members jumpstart their business development activities in the digital health space. And then also, we mentioned this earlier. We have a unique educational opportunity for the Pharma members through both peer to peer learning, as well as some very interesting structured seminars and workshops where we’re trying to help them navigate some of the challenges they will often face when driving digital health adoption within their company more broadly.

Kyle Wildnauer-Haigney:
Well, it sounds like you guys are taking an incredibly thoughtful approach to this huge issue, right in the form value chain. It’s essentially a gap between where foreign manufacturers are and where startups are. And so first, thank you for addressing this gap because I only think that, you know, the value chain and ultimately the patients are going to really receive outsized returns from this and maybe to end. I would love some closing thoughts and then also how listeners can connect with you.

Naomi Fried:
Well, thank you for those kind words. Kyle, so you know, we had an amazing response in just six weeks to our call for startup applications when we announced that startups could apply for this first cohort. We are processing this tremendous response. And PharmaU you actually kicks off September 1st with the first 10 startups that we’ve selected around this broad theme of enhancing and looking for innovations in clinical trials. You know, for people who are interested in joining PharmStars, both members or future startups, we are interested in talking with you. I’d encourage startups in particular to join our mailing list. We expect to run at least two additional cohorts next year, so take another 20 startups through our program. We are welcoming new members all the time, pharma companies, biotech companies, even CROs. So for anyone who’s interested in learning more or reaching out, we are online. We can be reached at www.pharmstarts.com P H A, R M, S,T,A, R,S.com and we are excited to be part of this growing ecosystem and to really help drive and support digital health adoption.

Kyle Wildnauer-Haigney:
Well, Laura, Naomi, thank you so much for coming in and speaking today. I really appreciate the work that you’re doing and excited to see it progress.

Naomi Fried:
Thank you for having us, Kyle. It was really wonderful talking with you.

Laura Gunn:
Thank you. Kyle.

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Things You’ll Learn

  • There is a big gap between pharma manufacturers and digital health startups. It exists because startups and pharma basically have very different cultures. 
  • A digital health revolution is underway and digital health is transforming health care.  It is changing the way care is delivered.  
  • Pharmstars accelerator addresses the pharma startup gap by building a bridge, facilitating and accelerating successful partnerships so both groups can benefit and improve patient outcomes. 

 

Resources:

Website: https://www.pharmstars.com/

LinkedIn:

 https://www.linkedin.com/in/nfried

https://www.linkedin.com/in/laura-gunn-64a76310