Who's the More Innovative: CROs or Pharma?

June 20, 2012
Pharmaceutical Executive

Applied Clinical Trials

It’s rather refreshing, in these gloomy economic times, to attend an event that bucks the trend for austerity, and the Pharmaceutical Contract Management Group (PCMG) annual conference last week certainly did that. For the last four years of its eight-year history, the meeting has been held at locations rather quaintly described by its current chairman Andy Parrett as “by the sea”. This year saw it unfold at the Sheraton Pine Cliffs Resort in Portugal’s Algarve, amidst a playground of golfers and well-to-do sun seekers. Parrett asserts that “if it’s in a nice location and they are enjoying themselves, people will take home a lot more from the conference”. By the end of Day One I could see his point.

But content plays a big part; fortunately, the content was also very refreshing. On the agenda was innovation: Where is it in the client-vendor interface space? Is it really adding any value? Can it really be made sustainable? And, not least, is the CRO industry actually being more innovative than pharma?

From afar this might not look earth-shatteringly new, but PCMG like to turn things on their heads. This was apparent from the first morning when Parrett’s own presentation declared “the term ‘strategic partnership’ is an oxymoron”. This set the tone for the rest of the conference: it wasn’t going to be your usual two days of dry statistics, articulate griping and bouts of sober self-congratulation.

Many in the CRO camp (the conference adheres to a strict ratio of two CRO delegates to one pharma delegate) went on to emphasize the innovations achieved in the industry. Josef Von Rickenbach of Parexel noted the transformation of the business from “a kind of art” to an industrial process and pointed out the progress made in forecasting budgets for large clinical trials. Others talked about the CROs’ ability to do more with less, and waxed lyrical on the benefits of knowledge transfer. But the industry failed to win the day in the Oxford-style debate, provocatively titled, ‘This House Believes CROs are the Source of All Innovation” (which, admittedly, was quite a claim to live up to). Arguing from the pharma side, Craig A. Coffman of Endo was more convincing when he said, “Don’t lay the blame for lack of innovation at the feet of the CROs. They’re just a mirror image of what’s going on in pharma.”

So this was no big pat on the back for CROs. Indeed, IT processes came under fire, with their tendency to “over-promise”. John Bennett of JABPharma said CROs should limit or eliminate the need for accurate predictions when producing forecasts because it just can’t be done with accuracy in complex trials. And PCMG’s founder Mike Sitton had plenty of provocative things to say, such as CROs are not transparent enough, business development directors are paid too much, and the large organizations don’t treat mid-size pharmas as well as they treat Big Pharma.

Speakers such as Sitton and Professor John Seddon embodied the overall sense of a desire to puncture the conventional thinking on any topic; they got away with making quite controversial statements, albeit with a degree of mischief. (This is the first time I’ve heard the ‘F word’ used so casually in a pharma industry presentation-and I’m not talking about ‘FDA’.) “I’m not sure I’d call it courting controversy,” Parrett told me later, “but challenging the way we think is definitely important for us.”

The inclusion of Seddon, an occupation psychologist by trade and now a self-styled “management guru”, was likely to shake things up a bit. PCMG is always keen to include speakers from external industries and academia as “people aren’t often aware of the benefits of crossing over different streams of thinking,” explains Parrett. “It’s not necessarily to import ideas from one industry to another, but we should be looking at where there may be overlap and be thinking outside the box.” Parrett mentions his own background in genetics. “I was interested in evolution, for example, and that alerted me to the crossover between the teachings of Darwin and psychology.”

How about Professor Richard Dawkins for next year then, I ask. Parrett laughs: “We do aim high as far as speakers are concerned, but obviously it comes down to what we can afford.”

Whatever that will be, it seems the ‘anti-austere’ approach will still hold as regards next year’s conference location. I hope I get an invite back.

Written by Julian Upton for Pharmaceutical Executive.