Time for
something new

Digitalisation is changing the healthcare sector. Completely new business models are being created, previously unknown actors are entering the market and processes are being turned upside down. Boehringer Ingelheim is helping to shape this change and has long been an innovator itself. Researchers are developing molecules on their screens using artificial intelligence. Smart production is taking hold, we are improving the health of people and animals with digital assistants. Last but not least, work itself is changing – becoming more agile and creative.

Boehringer Ingelheim clinical studies in the USA? Running soon over PC and smartphone. Study participants sign up with the NORA app and dialogue live with physicians. The physicians explain to them online how they have to take medications or what to do in the event of side effects. Nobody has to present themselves at the study center, everything works virtually, through telemedicine: fast and simple. NORA is part of the digital platform of the US start-up Science37 with which Boehringer Ingelheim joined forces at the beginning of 2019.

It is just one of many examples that shows how fundamentally digitalisation is changing the healthcare system. Pharmaceutical companies like Boehringer Ingelheim are transforming their processes and products and are becoming increasingly digital. Digital companies, on the other hand, are turning to healthcare. For example, Google is involved in the telemedicine project “Doctor on demand” which allows US patients to obtain a consultation from a doctor using a smartphone app. Via the company Verily, the search engine operator looks for new ways to identify and treat illnesses at an early stage – using large volumes of data, of course, which is the company’s supreme discipline.

Google – and other Silicon Valley companies as well – are thereby venturing into the field of medical technology and pharmaceutical companies like Boehringer Ingelheim. And, instead of simply observing how disruptive technologies are changing established business models, Boehringer Ingelheim is playing an active role in the innovation process.

“Our goal is to use the opportunities of new technologies in the field of research and development – particularly in clinical development –, but also when supporting patients during treatment,” says Hubertus v. Baumbach, Chairman of the Board of Managing Directors of Boehringer Ingelheim. “We believe that we can thus develop even more precise diagnosis and treatment.”

This works because modern medicine is also data processing. What does the internist examining a patient do other than systematically investigate bodily functions and compare them to the norms? What do radiographers do when they look at an X-ray? They try to identify patterns. And a pharmaceutical company like Boehringer Ingelheim? It looks for new active ingredients, with researchers testing thousands of molecule variations and recording every effect in exact detail. Without pharmaceutical research, countless findings from laboratory testing and clinical trials would never have been made, even if companies come nowhere near taking full advantage of the foundations provided by this accumulated data. It is clear: medicine derives from data.

“Because digitalisation is making completely new data available, we will be able to provide much more targeted treatments in the future.”

Hubertus von Baumbach,
Chairman of the Board of Managing Directors

Digital technology is now set to relieve people to an ever-increasing degree of the burden of identifying patterns and processing data, explains Matthias Schönermark. The physician is owner of SKC Beratungsgesellschaft, a consultancy firm in Hanover, Germany, that specialises in strategy consultation for pharmaceutical companies, health insurers and medical technology companies. Hubertus v. Baumbach adds: “Because digitalisation is making completely new data available, we will be able to provide much more targeted treatments in the future.”

The findings from this data treasure will determine the profile of new medicines in the future.” The company, says v. Baumbach, is therefore driving forward fundamental change: “For us, digitalisation is an important topic of the future” (see interview, pages 8 to 10). It is no coincidence that the BI Venture Fund, set up to invest in promising enterprises on behalf of the Group, is constantly seeking digital innovations. With its digital laboratory BI X, the Group has its own incubator for new ideas. Digitalisation has spread throughout the company.

Digital experts in the Group are currently working on a digital “Auscultation Aid” that helps physicians to diagnose rare pulmonary diseases, and on a program to identify pig cough. IT expert and physician Prof. Dr Sylvia Thun, who recently became director of eHealth and interoperability at the Berlin Institute of Health, believes that the age of collective intelligence in the healthcare sector is approaching. “Artificial intelligence assists doctors with diagnosis,” says Thun. “Physicians are becoming interconnected and drawing on the knowledge of their colleagues worldwide. This is data-driven medicine.”

Digitalisation also plays a key role in the development of medicines. Here, the software NTC Studio evaluates patient data, clinical trials and research work and provides the developers with new ideas. Their colleagues build three-dimensional molecule models using artificial intelligence through the “smart assistant” ADAM. They can then modify these models on their screens and test their properties.

“Physicians are becoming interconnected and drawing on the knowledge of their colleagues worldwide. This is data-driven medicine.”

Prof. Dr. Sylvia Thun,
Berlin Institute of Health

As in other industries, digitalisation has also impacted production. Industry 4.0 and “smart factory” are finding their way into the manufacture of medicines. At the new Launch Facility in Ingelheim, Germany, which is expected to commence operations in 2020, intelligent robotics systems will soon be filling medicines in minute batch sizes. For this, technicians wear virtual reality data glasses to help them align the packaging machines.

Last but not least, digitalisation is changing how people at Boehringer Ingelheim work together. The Animal Health facility in Lyon, France, shows what the digital office of the future can look like. At the recently opened BI CUBE in Ingelheim, employees are training to become “agile facilitators” and bringing modern methods of design thinking to the organisation.

Boehringer Ingelheim is thus participating once again in the renewal of its own industry. Innovation, says Hubertus v. Baumbach, has long been a guiding principle for the company. By buying a tartar factory in 1885, the founder Albert Boehringer started to produce tartar and tartaric acid. However, his interest rapidly shifted to the production of citric acid and a little later to the development of a bacterial procedure to set up the production of lactid acid – a venturesome and high-risk decision back then, but one that payed off. The company once again proved to be brave and innovative when it moved away from lactic acid in the early 1970s and again in 1986 when it built a production facility for biopharmaceuticals, the biggest in Europe at the time. Now digitalisation is taking hold in the industry, and Boehringer Ingelheim, where change and progress are deeply embedded in the company’s DNA, is not simply gearing up for the new, digital healthcare sector, says Hubertus v. Baumbach. “We are looking forward to this future.”

 

Glossary

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI)

Self-learning computer programs with algorithms that identify patterns autonomously and, in the process, continuously improve, as they avoid repeating errors.

BIG DATA

Mass volumes of unstructured data, such as records of experiment findings, patient data from clinical trials and measurement data from production facilities.

ROBOTICS

Substitution of human work with intelligent machines. Modern industrial robots at Boehringer Ingelheim are “collaborative”. People can work with them.

COLLABORATION

Digital networks where people share information on medicines, clinical pictures, research questions etc. As the number of participants increases, so do the benefits.

VIRTUAL REALITY (VR)

Computer-generated 3D imagery in real time – such as the simulation of a factory that has not yet been built. Incorporation of VR elements into the natural field of vision is called augmented reality.