It’s not exactly surprising that a partner of a venture capital firm with a tagline that “software is eating the world” thinks the same could be said for the drug industry.
Vijay Pande, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, runs the firm’s bio fund. So far, the fund’s made investments in companies including Freenome, which is developing a blood test that screens for the earliest signs of cancer, and Q, a startup that wants to quantify the human physiology.
Pande’s argument, as he explained to Business Insider, is that as health-technology gets better, we might be able to start replacing physical pills (the hardware) with software. At least in part. And where medicines (think: antibiotics) can’t get replaced, we might be able to get the right treatment options to the right people.
There are three areas in particular where he says we could see this happen:
- Machine learning could help us put more data to use. “There is so much data in healthcare that’s being untapped for better diagnostics, better care, and better applications. It’s a software problem.”
- We’ll start to use “digital therapeutics” instead of getting a prescription to take a pill. Services that already exist — like behavioural therapies — might be able to scale better with the help of software, rather than be confined to in-person, brick-and-mortar locations.
- Automation could help us find new drugs quicker. “What will happen is software will start to have an impact traditional drug design.” If anything, he said, software could either augment or replace the role of the medicinal chemist, the people who work to discover new drugs. Already, there’s been progress in making drugs, Pande says, but in the next decade, software will move on to designing the drugs in the first place.
- Software could also be helpful in areas where early stage research looked promising, but once the studies in humans began, the drug didn’t pan out. Alzheimer’s disease in particular has had trouble with this — on average, about 99% of all drugs in clinical trials never actually make it to approval. “Where mice models fail, software will be the natural approach,” Pande says.
Of course, this software-beating-out-hardware argument is integral to Andreessen Horowitz’s health-tech investments. Omada Health, a company the firm invests in, is an online platform that helps people manage chronic conditions, particularly Type 2 diabetes. It’s one of the ways Pande thinks a program could replace a pill, namely metformin, a drug used to control blood sugar levels.
For example, when a person first gets diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, they may be prescribed to use Omada at first. If that isn’t able to help on its own, they could be given metformin as well.
These changes won’t be abrupt and will work within the existing healthcare system, Pande says. We’re not necessarily going to see all the pills leave the shelves, nor will drug companies go out of business because all of their investments will be in “hardware.” He likens it to self-driving cars that still have to drive on the same roads we’re using now. That means there will be room for drug companies to find ways to work with these software-focused startups.
“Software eating the world is part of it,” he says. “But there’s no reason why they can’t come along for the ride.”
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