Podcast #40 – On the Basics of Pharmaceuticals

Posted March 9, 2021
By Niko Skievaski

Today’s guest is Kirk Barnes, the Co-founder and President of TransPharMed, a company dedicated to helping medical and healthcare businesses grow and excel. Apart from his work at TransPharMed, Kirk is also a Start-Up Catalyst at the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) housed at the Georgia Institute of Technology. As he explains on the show, ATDC (not to be confused with the band ACDC) is an incubator for entrepreneurs in Georgia that are working to break into an array of tech industries. Mentors like Kirk advise entrepreneurs on navigating the process of launching their product and scaling their business, as well as helping a number of successful companies graduate and go off on their own into the industry.

In this episode, Kirk and Niko not only discuss what Kirk is working on at ATDC, but also dive into the pharmaceutical space as Kirk helps explain the ins and outs of the industry, as well as where digital health and pharma are intersecting. This is really an illuminating conversation on all the work that goes into getting a drug to a patient, from distribution, to insurance, to what a PBM does. As COVID-19 vaccines become more accessible around the world, Kirk helps shed new light on the remarkable speed and collaboration that went into making these vaccines available for distribution.

This episode is a great refresher for anyone who is familiar with the pharmaceutical industry, but is especially for those who are looking to get their start in this space. Kirk’s robust background in working with a variety of companies from start-ups to established businesses allows him to offer key insights into how the industry operates and how to get started in the complex world that is pharmaceuticals. His best piece of advice: do your homework.

This post was written by Redox Production Intern Maddie Bettencourt!

In Niko’s words:

The pharmaceutical space has always been a giant black box I dare not open; I just leave it over in the corner of my healthcare memory palace and step around it as it comes up in conversation. But, given the events of 2020 and pharma’s outsized role in the pandemic fight, I became inspired to shine a little light over there and ask the dumb questions I had previously pretented to know the answer to. What’s a PBM? How are drugs priced? How are they distributed? What has digital health’s role been?

To help answer these questions, I reached out to an old friend of Redox, Kirk Barnes. He has spent his career working in the pharmaceutical industry: from drug discovery and development side, to distribution, and, now, aligning digital health strategies with pharma.  Kirk was kind enough to let me get down into the basics around the space and what digital health companies should know as they look to work with pharma companies.

Key Moments

  • 1:48 – Pharma’s response to the pandemic
  • 5:46 – What’s with voucher programs
  • 8:44 – Drug distribution, from pharma company to patient
  • 16:13 – Drug pricing in the US and abroad
  • 23:01 – Digital health’s impact in pharma
  • 27:17 – ATDC and Remedy case study
  • 32:42 – Where to begin in working with pharma as a digital health company

High-level discussion topics

  • Pharmaceutical space
    • 2020 will likely be a great year for the reputation of pharmaceutical companies, bringing a vaccine to market as quickly as they were able to do, working collaboratively. 
    • Can you give us a layman’s overview of how a drug gets from regulatory approval to market? 
      • What happens post FDA approval – formularies, reimbursement, PBMs, sales, distribution, etc.
      • Pricing – Price elasticity in a market defined by derived demand (sorry, I’ll turn this into English prior)
    • How has pharma been engaging with digital health? 
      • Digital health companies working with big pharma?
  • Enterprise Sales
    • Why’s it so difficult? Why’s it so lucrative?
    • Dynamics of the big enterprise stakeholders: health systems, payers, pharma
    • What do startups commonly get wrong here?
    • How should startups think about marketing in the early stages?
    • What do you recommend as a first sales hire? Go for the VP of sales or get someone junior to help out founders? 
  • ATDC’s Focus on Healthcare
    • Pitch ATDC – Why should healthcare companies join?
    • Success stories