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ICAP Mentor Outlines Importance of Customer Discovery to Drug Developers

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” It’s a common question hirers ask of potential employees, but it’s also a question that drug developers should ask of the potential medications they hope to bring to market.

William McPheat, one of the Life Science Mentors associated with the Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP) at George Mason University explained that drug developers need to have an understanding of the future market long before a drug is ever approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. McPheat, who spent more than 25 year with AstraZeneca, said that was something the pharma giant had to explore when planning development programs. And, he said it’s also critical for startups that may be looking to be acquired by a larger company before getting too deep into the clinical process.

William McPheat

McPheat’s presentation highlighted the process of customer discovery that applies to new drugs, medical devices, vaccines, and diagnostics. He explained that from the time a program goes into development, to the time it gets to the clinic, customer needs can change. The end result of any development program is commercialization, so it’s important to keep that in mind, especially before any clinical development begins, because once that starts McPheat said companies are “locked in” to the product.

He explained that when he was with AstraZeneca, he and his colleagues were tasked with coming up with future scenarios in the cardiovascular space. To look years into the future, the team talked with leading experts in the field, including physicians, health policy experts, insurance officials, and others in order to identify key drivers and predict what was to come.

Customer discovery is a complicated but necessary process of identifying the future customer segment for a potential product. McPheat, who worked as a consultant to Virginia life sciences companies prior to signing on with ICAP, said this begins with understanding a problem that needs solving (i.e. a disease treatment), then match the problem with a solution that brings value to the customer, such as a new drug or medical device.

“Ideally, this should be done early before significant resources are spent exploring an idea,” McPheat said.

He added that because it can take years of development and clinical studies before a product is brought to market, it’s wise for companies to conduct a second round of customer discovery. This will enable companies to glean how a situation has changed during the time it took to develop a program and how that will impact ongoing plans.

“The surest way to fail with a healthcare market is to build and market a solution your customer doesn’t need at the time of launch. You have to ensure that your program is time-relevant,” McPheat said. “For a drug, once you’re in the clinic, the product is locked in. You want to be absolutely sure about what you’re doing. You don’t get to change a drug in the middle of a trial.”

The ICAP program was established last year in order to bolster Virginia’s strong small business development programs and pocket life sciences ecosystems that have been established across the state in hopes of building a mid-Atlantic powerhouse hub of innovation.

During his presentation, McPheat reiterated that startups that hope to be acquired or sell off their developmental asset prior to it going to market also need to initiate customer discovery. Big pharma will want that information as part of their own due diligence before using their resources before licensing a product or acquiring a company.

McPheat was the second of the ICAP/GMU life science mentors to provide insights into the life sciences industry. In June, Philippe Sommer offered his expertise in the area of seed financing and understanding what strings may or may not be attached. Before ICAP, Sommer spent five years as director of business development at pharma giant Pfizer. Prior to Pfizer, he held roles with WestMed Venture Partners, Walnut Ventures, and the Charlottesville Angel Network Mass Medical Angels.