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How can pharmaceutical companies thrive in an Age of Disruption?

Deploying artificial intelligence to identify new candidate molecules. 3D printed “polypills” that contain multiple medications so patients can stay on top of their regimens more easily. Virtual clinical trials that use complete physiological models to simulate the effects of candidate drugs. Plus the small matter of a global pandemic.

It’s clear that rapid, disruptive change is coming to the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, it’s already here. But change doesn’t have to be scary. In this piece, we take a look at how pharma is being disrupted, and how pharma in Australia can take advantage.

 Let’s begin with a brief overview of some of the emerging trends and technologies that are disrupting pharma. We’ve already mentioned AI, which has the potential to revolutionise pharmacovigilance, drug discovery and development. Robotics and cutting-edge manufacturing technologies like 3D printing will change how our drugs are made. Big Data will enable the mining of huge data sets to discover hidden patterns in patient records and clinical trial results. “Around the pill” strategies will mean that drugs are developed and sold with a complementary digital health technology attached.

The trends disrupting pharma are almost endless. And, with an estimated global industry revenue of USD$1.2 trillion – almost the size of the entire Australian economy – the stakes couldn’t be higher. If just some of these promises are realised, firms can look forward to a future where drug development timelines are curtailed, more promising candidate molecules are discovered and supply chains are shortened. Consumers, meanwhile, will enjoy improved access to more personalised medicines and reliable, real-time information about their own health. Elizabeth de Somer, CEO of Medicines Australia, sees an abundance of opportunities for firms and patients alike. In comments made exclusively to HPG, she says that “we are experiencing a very exciting, fast-moving time for medical discoveries that will bring new options to patients.” 


It is impossible to discuss disruption without mentioning Covid-19. By now, almost everyone is sick of reading about how it will change things. But it is likely to change pharma forever – not least because the rapid creation of multiple safe, effective vaccines has helped to change the public’s perception of the industry. “Throughout the pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry has moved mountains to adapt and deploy different ways of working,” says de Somer to HPG. Firms, researchers and patients have collaborated to change the way that so many parts of the industry long thought impossible to be performed remotely operate. Clinical trials have become “teletrials”. Quality control has been digitised. Sales professionals have adapted to the cancellation of conferences by migrating to Zoom.

The competition to exploit the huge opportunities created by these trends will be fierce. Companies that are slow to adapt will not survive. Those that do will be the ones that can intelligently analyse massive datasets, drive down costs with innovative manufacturing and distribution methods, co-design new therapies with patients, and tell engaging and creative stories about their products.

Elizabeth de Somer believes there are two more things that will determine the future of Australia’s pharmaceutical industry. The first is taking advantage of the immense value created by the industry during the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure that our “systems and processes are set up in a way that will see Australians have fast access to these amazing discoveries in vaccines, medicines and treatments.” Government relations managers, take note. 

The second is for individual firms, supported by representative and advisory bodies such as Medicines Australia, to think long and hard about their future capability needs. “Effort will go into determining what the workforce of the future looks like and the opportunities for Australia, including in the pharmaceutical and medtech ecosystem – from discovery right through to patient access,” says Elizabeth.


Just as Australia’s pharma companies will have to adapt, so will workers. Whether you’re already employed in the sector or aiming to join the industry in the future, take heed of the following:

  • Stay up to date: increase your value by becoming the person in your company who can be trusted to understand the macro-trends affecting the entire industry.

  • Be flexible: hybrid ways of working are here to stay. The pharma firms of the future will be more fluid and agile. Make yourself an asset by learning how to work effectively across teams.

  • Evolve your skills: the industry is not standing still and neither should you. Consider how you can improve your skills in data analytics, computer modelling or innovative storytelling.