How IoT is revolutionizing the pharma industry
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How IoT is revolutionizing the pharma industry

The process of making and distributing drugs in the heavily regulated pharma industry has remained largely unchanged for decades. But today, the Internet of Things (IoT) is disrupting old models and creating innovation that will benefit manufacturers and patients alike.

From detecting problems on the production line to monitoring conditions along the supply chain to improving patient outcomes, new technology is transforming the way drugs are manufactured, delivered, and consumed. Here are some of the highlights.

Minding the Plant

In the past, pharma manufacturers enjoyed high profit margins and had little incentive to improve factory operations. But margins are eroding as patents expire and overseas competition increases.

The rise of personalized medicine — in which drugs are produced in smaller, less economical batches for specific patient populations — is also eating into profits. These factors have made manufacturers more receptive to experimenting with IoT technology, which can improve efficiency and prevent costly mistakes.

One recent convert is an American pharma company that freeze-dries drugs using a vacuum pump to reduce humidity. But when a $3,500 pump broke down a few months ago, the company lost $20 million worth of product, according to Pep Gubau, co-founder and CEO of Bigfinite, a company that provides IoT technology and big data analytics to the pharma and biotech industries.

Now the company connects IoT sensors to its pumps and other machinery. The information it collects is sent to a cloud-based platform created by Bigfinite. By crunching historical data in the cloud, the platform can predict when a breakdown is likely and can notify the company, enabling it to repair or replace equipment before it fails during production.

Like other manufacturers, pharma companies already collect huge amounts of data, but it’s stuck in silos and legacy software. “Over 70 percent of the data in manufacturing is never touched,” Gubau said.

When the data is moved onto a modern platform, combined with sensor information, and analyzed in the cloud, it gives managers visibility across the plant. They can quickly spot bottlenecks and identify equipment that is over- or underused, making changes to improve efficiency.

Minding the Supply Chain

After leaving the factory, drugs frequently travel on a long and perilous journey to reach pharmacies and patients. By ship, plane, and truck, packages move through a vast array of weather conditions and altitudes, while the drugs must remain within a narrow band of temperature, pressure, and humidity settings.

Even after they arrive, drugs must be carefully monitored. In 2014 and 2015, over 4,000 children had to be re-vaccinated after a pediatrician’s refrigerator cooled the original vaccines below the recommended temperature.

While transporting drugs, most companies use devices to log the temperature. Once a shipment arrives at its destination, the box is opened and the recipient reads the device to learn whether the correct temperature was maintained throughout the journey. If not, the drugs must be discarded.

IoT devices can solve these issues by providing real-time data to manufacturers every step of the way. When a French pharma company using a cellular-based IoT platform developed by the startup Tive received an alert that the temperature was too low on a drug shipment headed from Belgium to North America, it was able to get the temperature changed while the drugs were en route. If the drugs had crossed the Atlantic at the wrong temperature, they would have been too damaged to sell.

Tive also provides data analytics, which enables companies to see whether certain carriers have a pattern of shock damage or temperature fluctuations. In the future, it hopes to develop more predictive tools.

“Supply chain visibility is a huge problem, and now it’s possible to have a much better idea of what’s going on,” said Rob Stevens, Tive’s co-founder and chief revenue officer.

Minding the Patient

Producing and shipping under the right conditions is crucial to maintaining drugs’ quality, but they do no good if patients don’t take them when they should. Certain IoT devices have emerged to ensure compliance, which is the last mile in the pharma journey. Sensors and mobile apps not only alert patients when to take their drugs, but they collect data to help physicians determine how well they’re working.

Cohero Health makes equipment for patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A mobile adapter slips over the company’s inhaler, creating a digital log every time a patient uses it. Cohero also monitors information from a spirometer used to measure lung function, which can alert patients if their condition deteriorates.

Cohero’s platform pushes medication reminders to patients on a cell phone app. Patient adherence to inhaler medication is typically only about 25 percent, but using the smart inhaler increases that to 75 to 80 percent, according to Cohero’s CEO Joe Condurso.

Patients who take their medication regularly are less likely to make costly emergency room visits. They’re also less likely to use another apparatus called a “rescue inhaler,” which contains powerful, fast-acting drugs for emergencies but can scar lung tissue if it’s used too much.

Viewing their respiratory data “allows patients to become project managers of their health,” Condurso said. They can also have the information sent to their physician, who can change medication frequency and try different drug combinations, tracking the results.

“The goal is to improve patients’ lives so that they can live confidently and actively with the condition they suffer from,” Condurso said.

The Internet of Things has already made tremendous changes in the pharma industry, and the technology is still in its infancy. But researchers are introducing all sorts of new applications for these technologies.

Scientists at MIT, for instance, are seeking a patent for a tiny implant that can drip medications deep into hard-to-reach areas of the brain by remote control. Pfizer and IBM, meanwhile, are working together to detect tremors in patients with Parkinson’s disease by gathering data from the spoons they use to take their medication.

Capturing data throughout the pharma journey and putting it to good use could save the industry $5.8 billion to $6.6 billion a year, according to Gartner, which is enough to fund the entire R&D budget of a large pharma company. Putting some of that money to work developing more IoT applications could yield benefits scientists have yet to imagine.

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