Merck: Bio-sensing and Interfaces Innovation Field

Through its Accelerator Satellite Program in Cape Town, in partnership with MEST, Merck is looking to collaborate with start-ups in Southern Africa working on cutting edge innovations, to quickly explore and validate the potential for co-creating and collaborating with Merck’s internal innovation projects.

To apply or find out more about the upcoming Merck Challenge, visit the VC4A page here.

We linked up with Harry Aubrey, Innovation Field Expert in Bio-sensing and Interfaces at Merck Innovation Center to get insights about his area of expertise and how start-ups could benefit from collaborating with Merck.

What is the Bio-sensing and Interfaces Innovation Field?

Innovation Fields are an expression of Merck’s focus areas for innovation. Bio-sensing and Interfaces is our first Innovation Field, which is centred around the interface between the biological world and the digital world. Merck wishes to use bio-sensors to change how healthcare is delivered.

Currently, healthcare is going through a challenging time. Around the world, healthcare costs have reached all-time highs, the pharmaceutical industry productivity is decreasing and drugs are becoming more expensive as they get more sophisticated. This situation is unsustainable in the long run, and Merck’s hypothesis is that something needs to fundamentally change about how healthcare is delivered at an operative level, to become more efficient.

Digital technologies have huge potential in delivering this change. In this Innovation Field, we want to decentralize and democratize the healthcare model, offering an ecosystem which goes beyond just giving a pill to empower patients to better manage their own health.

There are three main components to the Bio-sensing and Interfaces Innovation Field:

1) The bio-sensor: we are looking for both existing and novel sensing modalities that can be used in a decentralized way. For example: sensors in patches, VOC sensors, ingestible or implantable sensors and devices that plug into mobile devices (where you already have a processor, battery and screen that can be used). However, we want to go beyond just the sensor itself and look at what information it is collecting.

2) Data analytics: we will utilise the data collected in a regulatory compliant way to better understand healthy and diseased states, individually, and the relationship between the two. In this area we are looking to partner with companies who can help make healthcare data tangible and manageable using novel data analytics to extract insights.

3) Action: we’ll look closely at what this data will allow stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem to do. How can it empower healthcare professionals or patients to better understand and manage health or disease to ultimately improve quality of life? From Merck’s perspective, we better understand disease and provide value to the healthcare system via early detection, prediction or even prevention of disease.

We prefer to link to our therapeutic areas of interest, where we have real expertise, which include: autoimmune diseases, neurology, fertility, oncology, cardiovascular health and to a lesser degree, given the number of existing devices in the field, diabetes. Although we don’t limit innovation to these therapeutic areas, they are a good focal point as that is where we have expertise.

These three components enable Merck, and the industry, to work on Outcome-Based Pricing, which is the future of the industry. This is normal in many other industries: you buy a product with a guarantee that it will work, and if it doesn’t, you get your money back. The healthcare industry is beginning to change to this model, where drugs are only reimbursed when the desired patient outcome is achieved (i.e., if the drug works). However, to move towards this, a lot of information is needed about the affect the drug is having on the patient, and we feel this is where sensors can play a role.

How might winning the challenge and travelling to Merck HQ help a start-up better work with Merck?

The idea is that leading startup teams will pitch to the Bio-sensing and Interfaces Field team. The best ones that are shown to have relevance to the field can be invited by the Accelerator to our program here in Germany and work on a joint project with Merck. That is what we do with the Accelerator: we are looking for projects with startups which fit in with the strategy of the company as a whole, to build business partnerships.

What are the regulatory implications of being so heavily focused on data?

Compliance with all data regulations, such as HIPAA in the US and the new GDPR in the EU, is crucial in this field. It is clear that data is owned by the patient; they choose who to share it with and need complete transparency on the use of their data to give their informed consent.

Data that is being used to optimise patient care is kept between the patient and their physician; Merck does not have access to this. However, we wish to use anonymised data to better understand disease biology, which can lead to better drugs in the future, and to improve how the healthcare system is operating.

We find that most patients give their consent for data to be used in this way, but we also see the potential for new technologies to further enhance the patient’s experience, such as blockchain, which can improve patient control and trust in the use of their data, whilst also opening up new economic models. However, we are not quite at this point yet. Complying with regulations is equally important in an African context. However, what is more of a struggle for Merck in Africa is the infrastructure for digital technologies and ensuring the information you are collecting is good quality.

There are a lot of good solutions out there for sensing things, but we are most interested in the why: why are you looking at this, how does it improve prognosis, encourage the patient to measure it or add value to the healthcare system as a whole? Most people stop using Fitbits after 3 months, for instance, because the utility or value add to their lifestyle isn’t clear.

What is a good example of an innovative company you have worked with in the space?

One example is a company we invested in through our ventures arm, called Biolinq, who are developing a micro-needle patch. The needles can reach into the interstitial fluid, without contacting nerves, so it is relatively pain free. For the first generation, they are targeting diabetes, but the technology can be expanded much further to look at other markers in the interstitial fluid, and Merck is working with them on this.

As the Merck Innovation Center we are tasked to go beyond. Our mandate is to create the next generation of the business, and there is a possible foreseeable future in which we are a data business, which focuses on prevention and sells a few drugs on the side.

About Harry:

Harry Aubrey — Innovation Field Expert

Harry holds a Degree in Biology and Business Management from Imperial College London and a Degree in Bioscience Enterprise from the University of Cambridge. As a research scientist, Harry has worked at two biotechnological start-ups; one developing a point-of-care allergy test and a phase Ib/II clinical trial CRO for viral respiratory infections. He has also conducted self-led research at the University of York, looking at novel therapeutics for human T-cell lymphotropic virus, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Outside of research, Harry has worked in the financial services industry and acted as a consultant within medical device regulation and for early stage technology commercialization in Liquid Biopsies.

Apply to the upcoming Merck Challenge here.