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Collaborating with the right experts in the post-COVID world

Collaborating with the right experts in the post-COVID world


The question of which expertise to trust has always been a tricky, sometimes even touchy subject. Nowhere is this better evidenced than the COVID-19 crisis. Every nation in the world – from Sweden to Saudi Arabia has had its own scientific community put under the microscope.
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  • Author Name: Graham Mills, co-founder and managing director of
Editor: PharmiWeb Editor Last Updated: 26-Jun-2020

The question of which expertise to trust has always been a tricky, sometimes even touchy subject. Nowhere is this better evidenced than the COVID-19 crisis. Every nation in the world – from Sweden to Saudi Arabia has had its own scientific community put under the microscope. Misinformation continues to circulate through global health networks, to the detriment of individual countries’ ability to respond effectively to the pandemic. Even the World Health Organization’s expertise has come under unprecedented scrutiny in recent weeks.

For pharma and life sciences firms engaged in the tricky, pressurised process of developing a coronavirus vaccine, this is far from the ideal starting point. Hence, it’s been encouraging to see the extent to which the global academic research community has aligned around the challenge. Academic institutions are examining coronavirus epidemiology and pathobiology from all angles. Millions of dollars’ worth of funding has been made available to support COVID-related innovation projects.


The limitations of current collaborations

Of course, this emphasis on ‘translational’ research is nothing out of the ordinary within healthcare and life sciences. In the UK alone there’s been £530 million of new translational research funding from the Medical Research Council in the past decade, which has generated a further £1.1 billion in private sector investment. Pharma firms rely upon it. Not only that, but they rely upon the academic world to deliver it, largely because it is academia that houses the sort of highly specialised expertise required to address genuinely new problems as they arise.

The challenge within the pharmaceuticals and life sciences industries is that identifying appropriate sources of academic advice and expertise is complex and time-consuming. No company can afford to engage every single relevant academic institution. They prioritise those with the best overall reputations, or those best-aligned from a commercial perspective, the result being that each firm ends up with its own closed-loop network of academic expertise.

This is useful for meeting ongoing business priorities, and yet hugely limited should the business ever move into unknown or untested territory – such as developing a coronavirus vaccine. COVID-19 has created perhaps the biggest market opportunity in the history of modern medicine, but it’s also a complex problem that carries incredible risks for the organisations that choose to involve themselves in the race.

Prioritising COVID-19 means deprioritising and diverting resources away from other treatment areas, at a time when the pharma and life sciences industries are already working at full capacity. There are fears that the current clinical trials problems could lead to a drug development bottleneck in years to come. No firm can afford inefficiency to creep into its processes right now. More fundamentally, no firm can afford to make a significant wrong move. They need to get big decisions right first time.

Unfortunately, here we can see the problem with relying upon a limited, closed-loop network of expertise. Time-pressures and resource constraints mean firms are being forced to revert to the experts with whom they’ve collaborated before or who is available via their existing academic network, rather than who is the best qualified – ‘who they know’ rather than ‘who they need’.

In this way, the pandemic has crystallised an issue that has been plaguing the sector for years – just ask any pharma company that has suffered problematic M&As, or faced wholly unanticipated challenges when entering a new market, or launched new drugs on what has turned out to be shaky science. The pharma and life sciences industries are being held back by basic shortcomings in our knowledge-sharing and collaboration processes.


Breaking open our academic networks

Given this multitude of pressures, how can pharma and life sciences companies address the problem of accessing the right academic experts to meet their most pressing needs?

The answer lies with artificial intelligence (AI) technology, which is capable of sifting through huge volumes of data at incredible speed. A human researcher seeking to identify an academic expert on a niche tropical disease in Central America could spend days, if not weeks, assembling a shortlist of candidates, with only limited evidence in support of each prospective expert. AI can perform the same task in minutes, in a way that is comprehensive and precise.

In doing so, the technology can make academic experts easier to identify, by analysing and intelligently assimilating millions of data points to pinpoint and profile the people who are truly leading their respective fields in different corners of the world. Furthermore, in contrast to conventional knowledge sharing systems – which can only tell you if a person was, at some point, identified (or self-identified) as an expert on a topic – AI tools are far better equipped to spot real-time change in status or reputation.

With high-priority research areas such as COVID-19, new studies and data are being published on an hourly basis. Pharma businesses have a clear competitive incentive to stay in-touch with who holds the most accurate and up-to-date knowledge from one moment to the next, particularly given the plethora of misinformation currently circulating around medical and health networks.

From classroom to boardroom

AI technology can now grant pharma and life sciences firms faster access to academic expertise, as well as enabling the more efficient transfer knowledge from the classroom, lab, or library, to the practical world of strategic business decision-making.

The question is: will these firms take the plunge and break open their manual closed-loop knowledge networks now, or risk waiting for the post-COVID market to force their hand?


Graham Mills is co-founder and managing director of, an AI technology innovator that specialises in connecting businesses directly to the source of technical and market insights.

Prior to founding, Graham held venture capital roles with Johnson & Johnson Innovation and Seroba Life Sciences before co-founding smoking cessation startup Abdicare.

A scientist by training, Graham completed his PhD in pancreatic cancer chemoresistance at the University of Cambridge and has also led a range of scientific R&D activities for both Genentech and Avidity Biosciences.