Pharma is a 'design industry,' expert says. So why don't all Big Pharmas have CDOs?

IDEA Pharma CEO Mike Rea

Last week, Johnson & Johnson became the first Big Pharma company to appoint a chief design officer in Ernesto Quinteros. But while the move may have helped the New Jersey company blaze a pharma trail, some, like IDEA Pharma CEO Mike Rea, say it's long overdue.

"Pharma is almost entirely a design industry, but it has been slow to recognize itself as such," the market strategy company's chief told FiercePharmaMarketing in an email.

According to The Wall Street Journal, J&J ($JNJ) will look to Quinteros to tackle challenges like rethinking how prescription drugs are packaged in an effort to improve patient adherence, sprucing up product websites, and everything in between. As group chairman Sandra Peterson told the Journal, the company also hopes more appealing design will help it regain the customers it lost during a series of recalls of consumer health products. "Design has a huge benefit on the marketing side, if it's done well," she said.

But according to Rea, design can--and should--precede all of that in the first place. Design is not just about the way a product looks, or even just about the way it works. Design is also about how you buy it, how you interact with it, and what it does for you. And it's essential that design is seen not as an add-on to a fundamental product but as a part of every decision made about it, he says.

"Pharma now presents so much opportunity, from adaptive trial design, to novel approval pathways, from novel ways to diagnose, to ways to measure response and track adherence, that can only be designed in, not considered as afterthoughts," he said.

Take Provenge, Dendreon's ($DNDN) potentially game-changing cancer vaccine whose complicated supply chain dented the jab's chances and sent sales tumbling, Rea notes. On the flip side, a drug like Eli Lilly's ($LLY) antidepressant Cymbalta could have been developed simply as a successor to Prozac, but instead the Indianapolis-based drugmaker designed a unique path to market based on pain management, setting it up for success as a $5-billion-a-year blockbuster.

And that's where a chief design officer comes in: Pharma needs people who can integrate drug development's moving parts to focus on creating solutions that meet patients' needs. "It must be an ongoing effort, a process of continually learning about users, responding to their behaviors, and evolving the product or service," Rea said.

So now that J&J has made the first move, will the idea catch on? Hard to say, Rea says. While he's aware of few pharma companies looking to change up their models, many have expressed a desire to be more "patient-centric" or look for some value "beyond the pill."

"Either of those visions should lead toward a role like the chief design officer, but there is a risk that they keep looking for something to bolt on, rather than fundamentally change their thinking," Rea said. "At best, this idea should signal a change."

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