By teaming up with larger, more established companies, startups can avoid having to reinvent the wheel—or, in the case of Propeller Health, the inhaler.
Madison, WI-based Propeller Health says that it and Boehringer Ingelheim, a German pharmaceutical giant whose products include the Respimat inhaler, have taken a key step forward in their joint effort to commercialize a version of the device that attaches to an add-on sensor developed by Propeller.
The two have now launched a new program aimed at providing these sensor-equipped inhalers to certain patients who already use the Respimat to treat asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The sensors measure things like when and where patients are taking their medications, and are part of a system designed to provide caregivers data and help patients manage their conditions.
Joe Slavinsky, vice president of business development at Propeller, says the startup has led or co-led more than 40 commercial programs since launching in 2010, including one with Humana (NYSE: HUM), a major health insurer based in Louisville, KY. The new program with BI stands out because of the types of parties involved and their position along the development pipeline, he says.
“Other relationships you’ve seen in respiratory medicine with a digital health company and a pharma company have been focused mainly on tracking and clinical trials,” Slavinsky says. “This is different in that we’re selling Propeller’s solution directly to the market—directly to providers—with the help of BI.”
BI and Propeller first agreed to terms in September 2014, according to a report from the website MobiHealthNews. Then, about a year ago, the FDA gave Propeller the go-ahead to market its system—which combines sensors, mobile apps, software analytics, and patient-specific feedback—for use with COPD medications delivered by Respimat inhalers. One such drug is Spiriva—like Respimat, a BI product—which the FDA approved in September to also treat asthma.
The new program will enroll patients at “select U.S. health systems,” according to a press release. Slavinsky says that salespeople from Propeller and BI will work together to decide which organizations make the most sense to target, and that those with the largest numbers of patients who are prescribed Respimat-delivered medications are likely to rise to the top. Then, he says, the two companies will home in on individual patients using a simple, list-based method that Propeller has nonetheless found to be effective.
“This will be very similar to the way we currently sell our system,” Slavinsky says. “We go to these health systems, we get a list of patients, and then we’re able to contact patients from that list.”
A similar program could be the next step in Propeller’s partnership with another big pharma company, U.K.-based GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK). Announced in December, the tie-up somewhat resembles the BI-Propeller partnership in that it involves developing a custom sensor for—and making it work with—an inhaler that’s already on the market (in this case, the model is GSK’s Ellipta). Slavinsky says Propeller’s hope is that its work with GSK will eventually proceed toward commercialization, similar to the sequence with BI.
Even more recent was news of an agreement between Propeller and Aptar Pharma, part of Crystal Lake, IL-based AptarGroup (NYSE: ATR), to develop a connected inhaler from the ground up. Neither Propeller nor Aptar is a drugmaker—the latter company has for decades manufactured and supplied valves, stems, housings, and other components for inhalers. As a result, the two partners would need to license the new inhaler to a third-party pharma business, which would bring the device to market in combination with its medicine.
Slavinsky says that in the future, connected inhalers are likely to be integrated. That means sensors would be built into the insides of devices, rather than snapped on via an attachment.
“There are benefits across the board with an integrated device, ranging from manufacturing costs, supply chain considerations, as well as commercial implications,” Slavinsky says.
The device Propeller and Aptar are co-developing is a metered-dose inhaler, which differs from other types like soft mist (BI’s Respimat) or dry powder (GSK’s Ellipta). Slavinsky says that metered-dose inhalers can typically be used with many different medications, whereas other varieties tend to be developed for use with a specific drug. Efforts to create an integrated soft mist or dry powder inhaler are therefore less likely to involve a materials-focused collaborator like Aptar, he says, because BI, GSK, and other large pharma companies not only have experience in developing medications for patients with respiratory diseases, but also in engineering hardware to encase these drugs.
So even if the Aptar-Propeller deal produces a top-selling device of the future, it seems that other types of integrated inhalers are more likely to result from partnerships like the ones the startup has forged with BI and GSK.