All opinions are my own.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Does the Pharmaceutical Industry Need A Steve Jobs?

Little over a month ago Steve Jobs passed away and tributes that have been forthcoming are breathtaking. This is in spite of his early career shortcomings. Besides creating amazing products he was a “simplicity” genius.

He took an industry that was looked complex to all of us in a different direction. In sixties and seventies computers were complex monsters humming in air-conditioned basements. He just simplified them. There were many contributors who participated in his simplification process, but his vision changed how the world interacts and socializes. He mesmerized us with simplicity of complex products. He created a progressive revolution and we all waited for the next storm when he came on stage. We anticipated the next best thing. He always had one last thing, we waited for it and he delivered. 

Apple products are simple and intuitively operated without a written manual. Yes there are people who do not like what he did but its very likely they own some of his products. Complexity to simplicity became Steve Jobs’ hallmark.

We need a similar simplicity revolution or “creative destruction” in pharmaceuticals. Actually pharmaceuticals need a double revolution that have to be carried out in parallel, first in API manufacturing and second in formulation of a drug dose.

Is a pharmaceutical manufacturing technology revolution possible?

Yes it is and it has to start in the laboratory where we react chemicals to produce the API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient) and mix it with inert excipients to create a dose. Many will say we have been successfully doing this for over 50 years and the processes work. Yes the processes do work but we go through many hoops, iterations and gyrations to produce quality product. We recognize these deviations and anomalies and explain them using different acronyms. We are enamored with them and discuss them at every opportunity. We overlook how these can be eliminated and what is possible. There are many proposals on how to get out of the rut but there is more talk than action. If there was action we would see results and instead of discussing various acronyms will be discussing the results.

If we step back, look and listen to the chemicals, we will realize that they individually and collectively are telling us how to create a simple process. We are ignoring their shouting and hand waving as we are influenced by what our text books tell us and what we are practicing in the laboratories. All of this is being manifested by stoichiometry and yield of the process.

Text books teach us general principles. We have to combine what is in the text books and what the chemicals are telling us along with our own creativity to develop a process that is simple and creates a product that is exactly same irrespective of who and where on the planet it is produced.

Our inability to react to what the chemicals are telling us has led to processes that are inefficient, unsustainable and complex. Since our customers have no choice for cheaper alternates we have passed our costs to them. Our comfort with our profits does not give us any incentive to simplify our processes.

I suspect and it is inevitable before long some “pharmaceutical nerd” will come along and challenge the pharmaceutical manufacturing technology status quo and will create pharma-iPod or iPad. It could be by someone from any of the developing countries who are on tail of the developed countries. It would not be surprising if it happens sooner rather than later.

Steve Jobs would say to us pharmaceuticalites “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish".

Girish Malhotra, PE

EPCOT International 

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