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Business & Regulation Digital Technologies, Supply Chain, Advanced Medicine, COVID-19

Blockchain Brainiac

What did you want to be as a child?

Just like many Canadians, my dream growing up was to be a professional ice hockey player – as we call it a hockey player! I quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen, so I focused my attention on my studies. I initially was very interested in becoming a doctor, but I was also drawn to the more statistical and quantitative side of healthcare on the population level, such as trends and correlations that can impact a large group of people and drive change on a large scale. That led me to become a health economist analyzing some of the largest population datasets in the world.

How did you get involved with the WHO and the European Commission?

My work in Canada was focused on microsimulation modeling on the Canadian population as it related to improving costs and driving efficiency for the pharma industry in terms of the types of medicines patients receive. I noted that there was a lot of fragmentation and silos in the way that pharma organizations worked, particularly with different providers – and I found this very interesting to study.

I moved to the University of Oxford to take up a PhD scholarship. While there, I worked in a WHO collaborating centre on population approaches for non-communicable disease prevention. I was very fortunate in that I had the opportunity to start influencing drugs supply chain policy at the global level early on in my career. I also had the opportunity to advise the European Commission in some policy changes in tackling chronic diseases.

What led to your interest in blockchain?

Through my professional background and studies, I became increasingly interested in the intersection between emerging technologies and the supply chain for the pharma industry. While at Oxford, I was one of the founding members of the Blockchain Society. Through the society and collaboration with some of the pioneers in this emerging field, it was clear that blockchain or distributor ledger technology could significantly drive efficiencies across the pharma supply chain whilst also ensuring trust, quality of data integrity and more data visibility.

And that interest led to Veratrak…

Correct. Veratrak is a company that grew out of the University of Oxford ecosystem – and a lot of our first employees came from that ecosystem. The university grew up a lot while I was there in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship. They created an Innovation Centre for Entrepreneurship called the Oxford Foundry – and Veratrak was one of the first companies to be incubated in their startup program. As you can imagine there are a lot of challenges and growing pains when it comes to setting up a company, but we were fortunate in that Oxford provided mentorship and assistance with things like legal, accounting, business building, hiring, and all of the other elements you don’t really think about when you’re focused on building software!

At Veratrak, our aim is to bridge the gap between how pharma manufacturers share data and documentation with their contract server providers. From my past experiences, I learned that the majority of GxP documentation is being exchanged outside a company’s four walls via email, whichcreates a number of bottlenecks and cybersecurity risks as well as data integrity risks. To alleviate these risks of insecure and inefficient document exchange we developed a web-based platform that allows for seamless review, exchange and electronic sign-off on GxP documentation through stepwise workflows between the pharma company and the service provider. All of this document exchange and communication/collaboration between businesses is captured in an audit log using our blockchain technology. There’s been a lot of hype around blockchain. Some people think it can revolutionize supply chains – and it can – but blockchain only has the right effect when you also put in place the right stepping stones. There are also challenges associated with blockchain like scalability and the amount of computational power required. Our proprietary technology offering reads transactional data onto the blockchain and overcomes some of the biggest challenges of cost and scalability. At Oxford, we won the prestigious Oxford University Innovation of the Year Award for solving this challenge. There were around 150 people or companies that participated that year.

We’re now a fully fledged company and we work with a lot of life sciences companies. We’ve also partnered with the UK MHRA on blockchain applications and were acknowledged in their 2020 annual GMP symposium as a result. 

How has COVID-19 affected the uptake of digital technologies in pharma?

The pharma industry is adopting digital technology at a faster rate now than it has done in the past. With so many employees working remotely, companies have been forced to adapt. But I think companies need to be more proactive. Right now, companies are reactive – adopting digital technology only when they absolutely need specific solutions. For example, because of the pandemic, most companies halted or postponed auditing their suppliers and customers. It was only recently that the FDA, EMA, and MHRA published guidance on best practices for conducting assessments remotely, and they recommend using software to help the pre-planning, execution, and post audit reporting. There are a lot of ways in which digital technology can add benefits and efficiencies to a company. Now that the industry is becoming more comfortable with new technology, I hope it will be more receptive to new solutions post-pandemic.  

How did it feel to be named on the Forbes 30 Under 30 List?

Being named on the list was quite a surprise but it was also quite nice to receive an award! And it has opened up a number of networking opportunities for me, which have been great for the business as well.

At the same time, it’s also quite humbling and makes you reassess where you’ve come from and how you’ve got to where you are now. Even though I’ve gotten some individual accolades along the way, they are still team accolades in my opinion. Our employees are the best! And we wouldn’t be where we are without them.

There are some other achievements that I am really proud of. The UK has its All-Party Parliamentary Group on Blockchain, which advises the government on blockchain technology across multiple industries, and I was named as blockchain influencers in Parliament.

Do you have any other goals in mind for your career?

I’m really interested in the next-generation therapies coming out, such as cell and gene therapies; in this space, there are a lot of important challenges around how the industry ensures that patients ultimately receive their treatment on time and to the highest quality. At the same time, there are concerns about affordability. In a perfect world, medicine as a whole should be accessible and affordable for all. These are challenges I’d love to get involved with.

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About the Author

Stephanie Sutton

Making great scientific magazines isn’t just about delivering knowledge and high quality content; it’s also about packaging these in the right words to ensure that someone is truly inspired by a topic. My passion is ensuring that our authors’ expertise is presented as a seamless and enjoyable reading experience, whether in print, in digital or on social media. I’ve spent seven years writing and editing features for scientific and manufacturing publications, and in making this content engaging and accessible without sacrificing its scientific integrity. There is nothing better than a magazine with great content that feels great to read.

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