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The Future of Pharma: mRNA Technology and the Next Big Launch

George Litos

Principal, Business Consulting, EPAM Continuum

Daniel Pinkert

Manager, Life Sciences Consulting, EPAM Continuum

Tyler Weathers

Senior Manager, Life Sciences Consulting, EPAM Continuum
Blog
  • Life Sciences

For centuries, vaccines were made using small amounts of inactivated or weakened germs to trigger an immune response that would protect recipients. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

Science prevailed. And the big win went to messenger RNA (mRNA) techniques, forever changing the pharmaceutical industry. CureVac, founded in 2000, was the first company to untangle how to use mRNA as a therapeutic, building on discoveries made in the early 1990s. Despite showing promise, no vaccine or therapeutic using mRNA made it to market until December 2020. That’s when the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency approval to the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine, followed shortly by Moderna’s vaccine, which also uses mRNA technology. Unlike traditional therapeutics, mRNA carries targeted instructions for the production of a protein from a gene, allowing the body to protect itself from a specific virus or combat a disease via an entirely different mechanism. 

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have dramatically decreased the number of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations, paving the way for mRNA technology to contribute to not only new vaccines but also to therapeutics for other diseases. Investors have noticed–both the success of mRNA vaccines and the potential. The global mRNA vaccine and therapeutic market was valued at $1.2 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $2.1 billion by the end of 2026. Moreover, the global market for future mRNA vaccines and therapeutics for non-COVID-19 vaccines is predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 95.49% over the forecast period of 2026-2031.

Now it’s up to mRNA tech companies to put their business plans on hyperdrive. To date, the only mRNA products that have launched are vaccines, and their development didn’t follow a conventional go-to-market strategy. Future products in mRNA pipelines, such as cancer immunotherapies and protein-based therapies, are expected to follow the standard launch process. Companies must find expertise in launch and commercial strategies ASAP.

Data Is (Still) Key to Understanding Consumers

Consumers are at the heart of the successful launch and commercialization of new mRNA products, a group that includes prospective patients, healthcare providers and payors.

A 360-degree view of customers is the backbone of any commercial enterprise, but such insights will be even more critical for mRNA tech companies because the terrain is so new. To understand this wide range of consumers, companies must first establish a solid customer data platform, which is a complex undertaking that requires domain experience along with strong engineering skills. A solid foundation will ensure companies understand their customer base. This is crucial not just for the immediate future, but also for sales and marketing strategy decisions that haven’t crossed the radar yet.

This foundation must be developed keeping data integration and governance in mind, which means minimizing data silos and fixing disconnections between enterprise applications. mRNA companies must be able to access and analyze data from external and internal sources seamlessly. Additionally, the foundation must include an enterprise governance model focused on transparency and trust, that also establishes the management of ongoing changes to both existing and future data resources.

How to Fuel a Successful Launch

Even after a product is approved, there are obstacles for even the best products on their way to market. The 360-degree consumer data platform can also help launch efforts by considering all types of consumers.

Healthcare professionals must be sold on a product before prescribing it, but the way a company’s salesforce interacts with these key players has shifted to more digital engagement and fewer face-to-face interactions. This means sales teams must use omnichannel strategies, informed by data and analytics, to better understand and reach healthcare prescribers.

Payors will require clinical data that clearly articulates the benefits and, more importantly, the safety of these novel products.  Because the market is so new, its growth and the extent of “real world” adoption isn’t yet known. Since these are new therapies, launch plans must not only target payors early on, but also prepare more data than usual.

Perhaps the most complex audience is the patient. Even now, only about half of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, despite enormous efforts to improve access. To address the reluctance to try something so new, mRNA companies will have to take a multifaceted approach, employing substantial innovation in content, messaging and the overall customer experience. These efforts should include:

  • Conversation. Create personalized experiences where messages can encourage interaction rather than remaining one-way. Patients should feel like their concerns are heard.
  • Social media. Meet patients where they are. The spread of COVID-19 misinformation showed how echo chambers can create powerful hurdles to improving health. Cutting through that noise and providing guidance will be a challenging yet vital process for marketing teams. Traditional pharma brand teams have been conservative regarding social media, which can offer another channel for two-way communication. A new approach to developing content that leads to thoughtful discussion will need to be led by brand teams and supported by regulatory, medical and legal experts.
  • Hub solutions. Place the patient at the center and aim to bring in all the services needed to advocate for them. Along with mRNA life sciences companies, a hub can integrate with healthcare providers, payors, specialty pharmacies and patient advocacy groups. For mRNA providers, the hub approach can help break the barrier that traditionally inhibits manufacturers from building a relationship with the patient and partnering with them along their journey.

Considering the patient’s needs and addressing them with digital and non-digital resources throughout their entire journey will transform their experience from skeptical to engaged.

A Strategy Equal to the Science

New technology can spark excitement or hesitancy. To garner success, a solid business strategy must put all types of consumers at the center, using data to understand their wants and needs. The potential of mRNA technology is limitless. It deserves a business plan that can soar with the science. 

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