What do four species of North American pit vipers, over 5000 Australian sheep and a bioprocessing facility in Wales have in common?
You’re forgiven if you didn’t immediately guess “the production of antivenom.” Even those working in biotechnology might find it difficult to grasp the notion of crisscrossing the world – from the US to the UK to Australia and back – in the pursuit of manufacturing the best quality product to treat patients suffering from snake bites in North America.
But that’s how we do it – and for years, explaining it has been a significant challenge. It’s one we share with numerous other pharmaceutical manufacturers who, in the face of new competition, must demonstrate why their product’s quality requires more time, resources and effort to produce. The answer to the challenge, for us at least, has always been complete transparency regarding our process, about which we endeavor to educate physicians, pharmacists, nurses and other healthcare providers.
It’s an open-kitchen approach, touted by business thought leaders for years: customers are more likely to trust and appreciate something they can see made right before their eyes – especially if it includes quality ingredients, expert technique and meticulous consideration each step of the way.
Amid a global pandemic, most of us can’t even eat in a restaurant, let alone peer into the kitchen, proverbial or otherwise. And offering someone a first-hand view of a global manufacturing operation would be difficult even in the best of times. In the pharmaceutical space, rampant supply chain disruptions have left many observers in the dark, while social distancing measures have cut down on already diminishing face-to-face interactions between sales teams and physicians.
Yet there is good news: virtual reality (VR) – which has seen some use in R&D labs, demonstrating mechanisms of action to physicians, and as a promotional aid – can also paint a picture of manufacturing processes in new, exciting, and radically transparent ways.
The coming VR boom – and how it can communicate transparency
While VR has been in the mainstream now for nearly a decade, it has yet to be universally adopted in the healthcare and life sciences industries.
But COVID-19, combined with a gradual shift to digital and decreased access to physicians, may solidify VR’s place in the industry. In certain healthcare sectors, VR vendors have already seen a spike in demand. Telling a story about manufacturing transparency may just be one of its innovative uses.
At BTG, for instance, the VR experience detailing our antivenom’s production process became even more beneficial to our sales team in the virus’s wake. As noted above, our story has always been difficult to convey. Sure, we could present the steps in a slide deck, printed piece, or short video presentation: the venom collection in Utah, the sheep immunization in Australia, the purification and viral clearance in the UK, the final packaging in Baltimore. But even writing this now we understand how one could feel a disconnect between the steps in the process and the reasons why each manufacturing site is essential to a quality outcome.
When we decided to make a VR experience, we knew we had to give our audiences an immersive, 360-degree view of the entire process. We wanted customers to understand the welfare of the animals involved, why we use sheep in Australia instead of horses (as was long the industry standard), the dedication of our employees, and other critical details about how our product is made with precision and purity. For us, it was not only an opportunity to be as transparent as possible, but to make that transparency as evocative, engaging and clear as we possibly could. With VR, we could take our customers around the world to tell an emotionally stimulating narrative about our manufacturing process – rather than a rote, step-by-step list.
At the moment, we’re developing an exhibit booth that could be shown entirely through VR: a small irony, as the technology that was once an attention-grabbing feature of in-person conference exhibits now has the potential to replace them altogether, enabling remote engagement and education for all virtual conference attendees. It’s just one more sign of how far the industry has come and where we may be headed in a post-COVID-19 world.
We certainly aren’t the first pharmaceutical company to create a VR experience, but we believe that using such technology to demonstrate transparency is an important step in the trajectory of its use in the industry – and, ultimately, in communicating the quality pharmaceutical production stories that need to be told, today more than ever.
Suzanne Ward is Senior Director of Medical Strategy and Jelissa Weston is Associate Director of Marketing at BTG Specialty Pharmaceuticals. Together, they serve as project leads on BTG’s VR experience.