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Out of SCOPE - Life Science Industry Observation from the First Major Exhibitor Show in 2 Years

A Hand-Curated Bundle of Goodness

My high school algebra teacher often said “isolate the variables.” In a world that’s gone through unfathomable change over the last two years, I had the privilege last week of attending an event that brought back feelings of pre-pandemic days. It made for the closest point of comparison yet for reflecting on the changes that have taken place in that time. It’s not a perfect equation to prove trends, but below are some isolated variables I’m keeping an eye on as the Bracken Team continues to obsess over the life science market.

 

Event Overview

The event I’m referencing is SCOPE, an annual conference in Orlando targeted at clinical operations professionals and attracting a variety of players from the industry. Coincidentally, the last major industry conference I attended was SCOPE in February of 2020, hence this event provided a nice comparison to itself. I want to take a moment to thank everyone who came out, many of whom invested in exhibiting at the event. It benefits all of us to invest in industry events like SCOPE and use them as a vehicle to drive progress throughout the life science category.

Quick Hits

  • Events are back, but will probably need a 2-year cycle for sponsors to see returns from investing in events before investing once more at pre-pandemic levels.

  • Interoperability continues to be needed, messaged, and provided amidst the alphabet soup of eClinical. At this point, if you sell CTMS, EDC, IRT or other acronymed software that doesn’t play well with others, get off the playground.

  • Creativity matters. Face-value messages on booths such as “optimize protocols” get lost in the shuffle. Messages that provoke a question, tie together a visual theme, or create some cognitive dissonance standout and give foot traffic a reason to pause.

  • Immediate tactical value matters. The booths that conveyed how a service or product would actually be used felt more enticing and more likely to provoke questions, or even a request for an on-the-spot demo.

  • Professionalism with candor matters. Some vendor booths seemed strung together with minimal work while others were more elaborate. Staff from booth to booth varied in their approach to greeting passersby, or not. The booths with professional design and friendly, trained staff stood out.

  • ML (machine learning) buzz is dying down. There are still plenty of vendors with AI and ML applications in the industry (many with great products), but the topic seemed a degree less prevalent than in 2020. Those who talked about AI appeared to be the real deal and had committed past the pre-pandemic AI fad. Those who were just riding the fad have moved on.

  • Decentralized Clinical Trial (DCT) messaging is going strong but needs to go deeper. It seems some vendors are slapping “DCT” language on otherwise generic clinical trial value props. The real decentralists can pull away from the generalists by going deeper into DCT topics that are still a blue ocean.

  • Go sites! In the past, patient centricity was such a trend that sites often didn’t get the industry attention they deserve. This year I witnessed much messaging and conversation around supporting sites, which should be a key focus to help clinical trials operate more successfully. Shoutout to SCRS, the non-profit Society for Clinical Research Sites, which invested in a booth to better connect industry players with trial sites.

 

3 Deeper Trends

  1. Wow, there’s a lot of new software, patient recruitment firms, and saturated subcategories.

Bracken was partly founded on a business thesis that the clinical trial ecosystem was about to give rise to a booming software category. The thesis was correct, and the trend continues.

There were several new players I hadn’t seen at industry events before, and I heard multiple vendors comment about how “there’s a lot of new software.” Combine new entrants with the fact that incumbents have kept their foot on the gas with product development, and there is a lot of software to choose from.

I attempted to count the number of sponsors that would qualify as an EDC, CTMS or IRT vendor and stopped counting at about 20 out of 130. Potentially about 15% of the vendors in attendance are competing within the same subcategories within an already relatively small business niche.

Lastly, there were about 10 patient recruitment players with booths. If perception is reality, they’re doing well. I think the pandemic amplified the need for specialty patient recruitment services, and the result has been a growth in recruitment firms.

What should we (industry businesses) do?

  • Get more aggressive. If you haven’t yet, now is the time to turn it up a notch in how you define and defend your lane, disrupt competitors, approach other subcategories, and build moats.
  • Consider consolidation and partnerships. We’re somehow back in a consolidation cycle after so much capital has been deployed in eClinical over the last 2 years. If you’re not considering how you could integrate with another company or two, you might miss the opportunity to do so. The market needs better software and recruitment, but it doesn’t necessarily need MORE. This will get amplified by the fact that current hiring, retention, and inflation issues makes it expensive to build product right now.

 

  1. Houston, we have a customization problem.

Here’s a potentially unpopular opinion: Most eClinical companies are not tech companies but professional services businesses with a software component. What I mean is, instead of using the SaaS playbook of scaling a one-size-fits-most product offering, it seems most eClinical orgs will customize, implement, and provide hand-holding for every client. Is this good for the clients? In the micro, yes. But in the macro, I fear this will prolong the high costs of clinical operations.

Why is this happening? One reason is protocol complexity. The number of endpoints, eligibility criteria, and data collection points in a clinical trial continue to go up. Many experts have researched and published on this (read more here and here), so I won’t go into detail, but it means that clinical trial software needs to be able to support thousands of different possible configurations to be effective.

Clinical trial complexity is increasing

What should we do?

  • Bring awareness to the issue, and support opinion leaders like event-speakers to speak on the topic and why it is counterproductive to the faster/smarter/better/more-cost-effective ethos of building software.
  • Be less flexible with pharma clients. I know. Good luck telling this to your VP of Sales. But the truth is we should have clinical operations do more to design trials with general infrastructure and capabilities in mind. The result might be more capable site staff, better understood processes, better unit economics, better scaling, and ultimately more research accomplished for less budget.
  • Continue emphasizing industry standards such as CDISC for data exchange and regulatory submission.
  • Continue communicating the value of low-code or no-code plug-and-play solutions, even within complex clinical trial environments.

  1. The tech gap is widening thanks to Web3.

Not all products are built equally. Because there is so much software in the industry, the gap between weak and strong tech offerings is noticeable. Something I saw is a clear difference between “older tech companies” that have offerings similar to those available 4 years ago, and others that are pushing the envelope with all-new capabilities.

Anecdotally, I sensed a stronger approach from those whose products incorporated web3 concepts like how to future-proof software with blockchain-enabled security (ex. hash keys and smart contracts), or offered an ability to service both decentralized and conventional clinical trials. And I sensed a stronger company culture from teams whose non-tech employees—customer success and marketing people, for example—could speak to the technology.

What should we do?

  • Emphasize knowledge-sharing of new tech concepts within our businesses and team cultures.
  • Invest in educating employees in Web3 and decentralized tech concepts.
  • Add blockchain-enabled technology to product roadmaps.
  • Consider more value props (communication) around security features, speed of data transfer, and ability to service non-conventional buyers.
  • Use product and employee sophistication as company differentiators.

 

In Closing

It was great to see the industry in-person again, even if it will take some time to get events to “full steam”. There’s no denying this industry has an atmosphere of collaboration and advocating for patients. I’m glad to be a part of it.

If Bracken can help your business by discussing industry trends and insights in more detail, please book a meeting with us (click here).

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