Glen de Vries is the co-founder and president of Medidata, which provides cloud solutions and data analytics for life sciences organizations conducting clinical research. Medidata is approaching a $3B market cap, and its platform, the Medidata Clinical Cloud®, is accelerating hope for patients by powering innovation for over 800 life sciences organizations, including 17 of the world’s top 25 global pharmaceutical companies.
Dhruv Vasishtha (WG’18), worked at Medidata from 2014 – 2016, and caught up with Glen ahead of his talk at the Wharton Health Care Business Conference to interview him for The Wharton Journal. Below is an excerpt from their discussion.
DV: Glen, thank you for taking time to answer some of my questions, I am looking forward to talking to you about your career, trends in healthcare technology, and some of the management insights from your journey in founding and growing Medidata.
Let’s start at the beginning. Launching a healthcare venture can seem daunting with the long sales cycles, regulations, and large institutional players. What inspired you to found Medidata and how did you persevere in the early days?
GdV: We founded Medidata because we were frustrated researchers. We were already working in the system we were trying to transform, so the inspiration came from the opportunities we saw in our day-to-day world. That said, even in the face of the challenges associated with what is clearly a bigger barrier to entry and early-stage success in the healthcare industry, we were part of an industry where better outcomes really matter—not just to your company or your clients, but to patients. And that’s really everyone!
That’s a pretty exciting thing to wake up to and work on every day, even when the work is difficult or frustrating.
DV: Medidata invited Wharton’s own Dr. David Fajgenbaum (Perelman ‘13, WG’ 15) as a speaker to share his inspiring story, and his fight to cure his own disease. What were some of the other ways you focused on end users—patients, researchers, scientists—throughout the company’s history?
GdV: Dr. Fajgenbaum’s presentation about his experience as a Castleman disease patient, doctor and advocate is one of the many inspiring patient stories we have helped to spotlight. Through our events and other Medidata initiatives, we provide a platform for patients and industry thought leaders to share first-hand accounts of their experiences with our employees and the broader life sciences community. We just had TJ Sharpe, author of the Patient #1 Blog on Philly.com, present to our global team last week—another truly inspiring patient advocate with his own survival story that is intertwined with the world of clinical trials.
There is just no substitute for hearing directly from patients and advocacy groups about their day-in-and-day-out experiences. The better our team understands the role healthcare professionals and advocates play in driving meaningful change for patients and the industry overall, the better Medidata will be at delivering the technology tools to help life sciences companies bring better therapies and cures to market more quickly.
DV: Coming to the present day, a lot of disruptive trends in healthcare get mentioned—digital health, precision medicine, Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning—to name a few. From your perspective, which of these innovations do you think will have a long-lasting impact? Which provides the greatest benefit to patients?
GdV: I think all of them are here to stay. That said, I don’t think that every idea for applying AI to healthcare, for example, will work or be a good idea, just as every new molecule isn’t necessarily going to be a good new drug. Whether we’re talking about digital medicine, AI or other “disruptive trends” in healthcare, we need to take a disciplined scientific approach to figuring out which ideas will really work—as defined by creating sustainable value for patients.
DV: How would you define “patient value”? Is it an improvement over standard of care? Lower costs? Improved provider experience? Something else? All of the above?
GdV: In this case, there’s a huge opportunity to quantify outcomes. Did the drug allow the patient to sleep better or be more active? If so, by exactly how much vs. patients on competing drugs? These are much more substantive questions than asking a patient something subjective, retrospectively like, “How did you feel?”
There is also a tremendous opportunity to use cost and value data in clinical trials to make better hypotheses about real-world economic outcomes. The faster we can determine whether a therapy is (or isn’t) working for patients in their day-to-day lives, the faster we can get them on treatment plans to better manage their diseases and improve quality of life. This will become increasingly important as the industry moves toward value-based care models.
For example, let’s say two companies have created drugs that slow tumor growth to the same degree. They both might be submitting regulatory packages showing progression-free survival being extended for an additional year. Using wearable technology and mobile health apps, we can see that the patients on drug A are staying in their bedroom or their hospital room, while patients on drug B are going on vacation and going to work five days a week. In a value-based, outcomes-focused model, drug B will have a better chance of securing approval and getting reimbursed. Regulatory agencies are currently evaluating how new devices can impact clinical research, and the FDA has made it clear that it will not stand in the way of life sciences companies who want to incorporate these tools into studies.
DV: In the last few years, large technology companies have begun to enter the healthcare space. For example, Alphabet with Verily and Calico, Apple with CareKit and ResearchKit, IBM Watson, and Uber. At the same time, many healthcare firms are incorporating technology into their products and services. Can you talk about which firms you believe are transitioning successfully? In what way?
GdV: First, I think it’s interesting to see large firms realize that being in healthcare is a good idea. A $9T global market has room for a lot of players (large and small), and the virtually simultaneous entry of so many large companies over the last few years is interesting unto itself. That said, I think one of the earlier entrants is—and will be—particularly successful, and that’s Apple.
From what I can glean of its strategy (and I have no more information than the general public would have, to be clear), Apple is (1) Figuring out ways to provide infrastructure for new models in healthcare—e.g. HealthKit, CareKit, ResearchKit, (2) Doing so with interesting privacy models that will allow for broad ecosystems that encourage other companies to innovate along with it—e.g. the App Store, and (3) Ultimately doing all of this in a way that will further the Apple core business model—selling iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches. Smart.
DV: Shifting gears a bit, I want to talk to you about culture. Medidata has a strong culture, and, from firsthand experience, employees believe in its mission: powering smarter treatments and healthier people. As an example, I remember an interaction on a late night when my team was working to launch a new product. Someone said they were calling it a day and they could “work on the bug later… it isn’t like we’re curing cancer.” I remember how quickly he caught himself and remarked that, in fact, we were working to help cure cancer and it was highly probable the cure would be discovered by researchers using the Medidata platform.
As a founder who has stayed on and led your company from inception to IPO and beyond, how did you maintain the organizational culture as the company grew from 2 to 1,700 employees? What are you doing to maintain that culture for the future?
GdV: Our culture has certainly evolved as we’ve grown, but I’m proud that we haven’t strayed away from our core tenets—or what we refer to as our DNA—including customer service, tenacity and innovation.
There’s a story that Tarek Sherif, Medidata’s CEO, and I tell every time new hires come to headquarters for orientation because it’s a good lesson in what has made Medidata successful over the years:
In the early 2000s, a California biotech giant had just agreed to meet with us. Medidata wasn’t on its radar, especially in comparison to more established companies that had already been identified by the decision-makers at this particular biotech as obvious choices to provide an electronic platform for the company’s upcoming clinical trial. But we got our foot in the door, and found ourselves doing a two-day demo with the biotech executives sitting classroom style, a computer in front of each. They were all playing different roles—doctor, nurse, patient—in a simulated clinical trial. In the beginning, there were zero glitches, so much so that the biotech executives started creating increasingly difficult scenarios. Still, no problems. Day two was very different. Our goal was to show off how user-friendly Medidata’s software was in comparison to competitors’ products, which required a fair amount of programming at the outset. However, the presentation began with our sales lead on the account spilling a full cup of coffee on the biotech’s CIO. And the meeting quickly went downhill from there. Nothing in the demonstration worked as it was supposed to.
Afterwards, in the parking lot, we were so worried that the meeting was an omen signaling the end of Medidata. I remember thinking this was our one chance to get a big client, and we completely screwed it up. Our head of sales pulled the team together and said: “Guys, we’ve got this. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go back to New York and fix everything that was broken. Then we’re going to send it to the team we’ve just been meeting with, and they can go online and test out the software on their own.”
And that’s what we did. I think the biotech executives were impressed by how well the software worked, when it did work. They saw the level of effort that we put in—as well as our tenacity and humility—and ended up selecting us. That biotech was our first enterprise client, and the experience taught us an important lesson about the kind of teamwork that it takes to really make things right. Over the years, that same spirit has remained an integral part of Medidata’s DNA.
While I think you can cultivate or curate culture, it has to grow and evolve on its own. We certainly do a lot to try to model what we think makes for a productive, innovative culture—and that has been recognized outside of the organization, too, most recently landing Medidata on Fortune’s list of 100 Best Workplaces for Millennials.
The nature of what we do at Medidata is serious, but we also do our best to keep the environment fun and upbeat. For example, Halloween at Medidata is one of the most celebrated days of the year. We have parties in our offices across the globe and a company-wide costume contest, and all of our executives—including Tarek and myself—dress up and attend meetings in costume. We also encourage employees to participate in “Innovation Time,” which are freewheeling periods of exploration that enable people to seek out challenges and experiment with new concepts outside of their normal day jobs.
However, what’s even more important than these initiatives, is hiring people who will fit into the cultural framework of the company, who will add to it, and who can help it evolve and grow in the right way.
GdV: Same here!
Glen de Vries
Glen is the president and co-founder of Medidata, and the original architect of Medidata’s cloud platform. Glen has been driving Medidata’s mission since the company’s inception in 1999: Powering smarter treatments and healthier people. His peer-reviewed articles have appeared in Applied Clinical Trials, Cancer, The Journal of Urology, Molecular Diagnostics and Urologic Clinics of North America.
Glen received his undergraduate degree in molecular biology and genetics from Carnegie Mellon University, worked as a research scientist at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and studied computer science at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematics.
Check out Glen’s recent interview with the biotech venture capital podcast Human Proof of Concept to learn more about Medidata, its origins and global growth story.
Dhruv is a first year MBA student at Wharton in the Health Care Management department. His prior experiences have spanned management consulting, founding startups, and product management. From 2014 – 2016 Dhruv was on the product management team at Medidata launching mobile apps, SDKs, and biosensor integrations to improve the patient experience and clinical research.
Dhruv received his undergraduate degree in economics from Columbia University.