Is the pharma industry a bit behind others in adopting intelligent packaging solutions such as integrating printable electronics?
I think it is the conservative end of a conservative industry. There are industries, such as the food packaging industry, which are further forward in terms of technology adoption. The FMCG sector tends to be full of early adopters; the pharma industry tends to be behind them. The necessary regulatory issues in medicines, and the costs of implementing the technology, often put people off.
What sort of change could this make? How do you think printable electronics and printable batteries will change the way we do things?
These are things that give companies a lot more access to data much more quickly. Everybody has a mobile phone these days. Everyone is connected to the internet. We are all used to having quick access to live data. You can then search through that data and make informed decisions.
One of things that we have done here at CPI in the REMEDIES project is to find a way of ensuring that people react more quickly when there is a shortage or an excursion of their drug so they can replace that drug within a much shorter period of time that they would otherwise. One of the transformations of this will to make the pharma industry much more agile and more able to make informed change quickly.
So there is a role for printable electronics in packaging to help in tracking a product along the supply chain to the end user; but what about its role in maintenance of the quality of the drug?
As we go towards biologics and biologic drug development, where that control of quality is much more challenging, you will see an improvement in the monitoring of quality as well. You’re not just building in tracking of where it is, but also how it has been handled. You can say whether it has been dropped, whether there has been a change of pressure or temperature or, perhaps, whether something has come loose during shipment. So, you can look at a whole host of supply chain issues around handling and environmental conditions and assess the integrity of the product as a result of how it has been handled.
To what extent has it been of value to be part of a partnership doing this? Surely there must be quite a few customers who would get the benefits of this from the start without you having been part of REMEDIES?
I think one of the issues for printable electronics is that the development of it is quite new and generally the price point of what we produce in printable electronics tends to be quite high. The benefit of being in REMEDIES, and being in the partnership, is that we have GSK and AstraZeneca alongside us. I think pharmaceutical companies can sometimes tolerate a slightly higher price in terms of what they are willing to pay to protect their produce, whereas FMCG is much more price sensitive and an extra penny makes a huge difference. At the moment addressing challenges in the medicines supply chain provides is a good testbed for us to develop the technology as we move towards that cheaper price point in the future.
Some of the kit that you have had to invest in to take this forward seems to have been rather expensive?
We do operate an open access policy at CPI so, while it is expensive, being part of a catapult centre means that companies can come and use the kit and develop their processes using our equipment. It saves them the outlay on perhaps £3 million worth of kit. We are trying to de-risk some of the development of this field of innovation for others in terms of capital investment, together with know-how.
What is the excitement of being at the leading edge of this?
It will really make a difference to patients’ lives. That’s what it comes down to. Patients benefit if we can improve the supply chain. Patient compliance – whether a medicine is taken properly, if at all – is another area that we can look at. It is really about trying to improve people’s lives. And access to data on products and how they are used is really important to improve companies’ behaviour and patient’s behaviour. The information we can generate can improve people’s lives in a way that they don’t necessarily appreciate or realise.