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Unlocking doors: Key considerations for startups during Discovery and Development

Mark Hicken


Mark Hicken is Vice President of Strategy for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson (Janssen). With more than 20 years of experience in the company, Mark leads a cross-functional team that drives Janssen’s continued growth across the region, in close collaboration with the local operating companies. On the 28th of October, Mark presented a talk during an online event hosted by Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS (JLABS) ‘Start at the End: Thinking Commercial during Discovery and Development’ (recording available here). Following the webinar, Mark shared some additional insights and advice with us.

Q1: What are some key factors healthcare companies need to bear in mind during early discovery and development?

There are three things that are absolutely vital for a company’s strategic focus. The first priority is to address a high unmet medical need. That’s the most exciting bit, and what people get really energized about.

“Patient-centricity is a bit of a buzzword, but it is crucial that – right from the start – you’re already thinking about how this new science could and would integrate into a real patient’s life.” – Mark Hicken

Secondly, you need for there to be a willingness to pay for the innovation. Markets across the world obviously differ, but the bar for prospective payers is always high. Demonstrating that your innovation is not only meeting a medical need, but also a societal or economic burden, can help to lower that bar. Payers always prefer disease-modifying therapies, with ‘The Holy Grail’ of course being a curative option. Very early on, you need to think about evidence and what can help to build your case towards the payers.

Now, while the first two factors make sure you've got the supply and demand for your business, the third is about ensuring your innovation will be protected: your scientific promise absolutely needs to be patentable. It doesn't matter if you got there first – if you can’t secure exclusive rights to your innovation, others will quickly catch up and copy your success. IP is always top of mind for investors, which means it needs to be top of mind for you too.

Q2: Once you have those three elements in place, how can you help to prepare the market for your innovation?

There are three main groups you really need to be in touch with well before the launch of your product: patients, payers, and clinicians. Although your innovation may be a revolution in patient care, if it leads to a change in the clinical practice and has budgetary/resource implications, it can be seen as somewhat of a challenge. For example, if somebody has a clinic set up to administer intravenous drugs, and you introduce a subcutaneous version into the market, you challenge their business model. So, you need to reach out preemptively to prepare clinicians for the disruption.

This preparation is also vitally important for the patients, where a large part is about education. To accept innovation, people need to understand what it is, how it benefits them, and how it changes their experience of clinical care. Outside of the US, our hands are a bit tied because we can't talk to patients directly about products. To reach them, we often partner with patient advocacy groups. These organizations are well connected, a trusted source of information, and really understand the needs of the patient. They can also help to ensure that the patient voice is incorporated into early thinking. As a startup, you should be able to easily identify a few global patient organizations relevant to you and initiate a conversation. By talking to just a couple of people, you can open a door to potentially thousands of patients who may also want to participate in clinical studies and support your journey.

Q3: Is there something you think innovators often neglect to consider early on?

Communication – it’s a real art. You can have the best product in the world, but if nobody knows about it, or they don't understand it, you're never going to fulfil the potential of that innovation. My advice would be to keep it simple. For example, commercial strategy is really just about four questions: where are we going to play; how are we going to compete; what resources do we need to get there; and how do we know when we're successful?

Your story also has to be compelling. Is there a hook? Is there an emotional connection? Is there an element of human interest? By using patient testimonials, or illustrating the impact of the disease, you can really drum up excitement for your solution.

Q4: With so many things to bear in mind, it’s easy to get overwhelmed! What’s your advice to makes sure that, as an innovator, you aren’t missing anything?

Mentorship! Collaboration with an organization like Johnson & Johnson Innovation can be absolutely invaluable for a startup. By working with a mentor, you gain access to tremendous experience and a wealth of knowledge that can really make a difference early on. Having a sounding board will allow you to sort out the many things that are circulating in your head, unpick the questions, and identify priorities. Finding a great business mentor is probably the most important thing a startup can do to stay focused.

I think it’s fair to say: innovation is easy to describe, but much harder to do. Still, there aren't too many problems that you can't solve with a heavy dose of creativity and resilience. As people much smarter than me have said: curiosity is the most important ingredient. Innovation is hard, and there are a lot of steps on the road to success. It’s easy to get bogged down. But when things start to fail (and they will): get back up and keep asking questions – that'll get you to where you want to go!

To learn more about this topic, we invite you to view the recording of the webinar ‘Start at the End: Thinking Commercial during Discovery and Development’. During this session, Janssen colleagues describe how they use the Target Product Profile (TPP) – a go-to document used as a concise communication tool designed with the aim to demonstrate key value drivers and attributes of the intended product.