In June, the International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE) launched the ISPE Foundation, its philanthropic arm. Funded exclusively through donations, the foundation aims to support pharmaceutical professionals at a transitional time for the industry.

“As the industry moves from treatments to cures, and from on-time delivery of medicines to on-demand delivery of medicines, that changes our manufacturing and business operations paradigm,” says Mike Arnold, chair of the ISPE Foundation and senior director of strategic partnerships at ISPE. “We wanted to set up a foundation to support our members, and the pharma industry as a whole, as they address these challenges.”

In particular, it wants to support education, training and research. Following the shift from small molecule drugs to biologics, traditional working models are no longer as fit for purpose and different sets of skills are required.

“With the evolutions in areas like gene therapies, stem cells and nanotechnology, medicines are more specifically designed for a small group of patients with a common disease. So the focus is very different,” Arnold explains.

This change of focus brings challenges and opportunities in equal measure. Over time, the ISPE Foundation plans to launch a wide range of initiatives, helping its members seize those opportunities when they arise.

Building the workforce of the future

For the time being, there are three initiatives underway: ‘building the workforce of the future’, ‘empowering women and increasing diversity’, and ‘global knowledge exchange’.

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“We expect the initiatives will expand considerably going forward but what we wanted to do first was focus on some real near-term needs,” says Arnold.

“We wanted to set up a foundation to support our members.”

The first initiative, building the workforce of the future, is supported by the ISPE Travel Grant programme. It aims to support, educate and train young people entering the industry.

“As we go from a small molecule to a large molecule world, the skill set is very different,” says Arnold. “We felt that if we provide a level of focus in this space, and opportunities to help build and nurture tomorrow’s workforce, we might be able to do a great service to our members and the industry as a whole.”

By 2025, 60% of the 3.4 million biopharmaceutical industry jobs in the US could be vacant, according to a report by trade group PhRMA. Many other countries, including the UK, are seeing a similar skills shortage, and consequently risk of losing their edge on the world stage.”

Through the ISPE programme, students and young professionals can receive financial support to boost their development – a powerful incentive for STEM graduates who might otherwise look elsewhere.

“Today’s young professionals come with much more of a focus on using technology,” says Arnold. “Senior members of the industry are often less adept in this regard, so we believe the young professional is a valuable resource. We want help them gain the necessary skills in the industry to be successful, but also to leverage their skills in the technology space.”

Improving diversity of thought

The second initiative, empowering women and increasing diversity, builds on ISPE’s existing Women in Pharma programme. Unfortunately, the notional glass ceiling is far from smashed – only 17% of Board seats at the top 50 pharma companies are held by women, and just 8% are held by people of colour.

“By 2025, 60% of the 3.4 million biopharmaceutical industry jobs in the US could be vacant.”

Quite aside from the ethical dimension, a lack of diversity is bad for business. In a 2015 study by EY, 96% of life science leaders agreed that diversity of thought (which comes from recruiting people from different backgrounds) would be key to helping their companies navigate change.

ISPE’s Women in Pharma programme hopes to rectify the existing imbalances. In practical terms, it creates mentorship and networking opportunities for women and people of colour, with a view to boosting their representation.

“What we like about this initiative is that it provides women in the pharma industry with a forum to connect and collaborate on technical and career advancement topics,” says Arnold. “It also allows them to mentor some of the younger professionals, which is important from a leadership perspective.”

ISPE is also looking to improve geographic diversity, supporting pharma professionals from outside the US.

“You’re fostering a culture of diversity of thought, which I think creates more business opportunities and a greater likelihood of success,” says Arnold.

This emphasis on diversity ties in well with the third initiative, the global knowledge exchange. As medicines production moves into new markets, pharma companies are facing a number of challenges around infrastructure and quality control.

The ISPE Foundation therefore wants to harmonise industry practices, and improve access to information in emerging markets.

“When you get into some of these evolving countries, their infrastructure isn’t as well established and they don’t fully understand the need for a more robust quality and regulatory system,” says Arnold. “We want to share that knowledge with them and harmonise on a practical level where we can.

Future focus for the foundation

While the ISPE Foundation is still in its early stages, it has big plans for the future, and eventually hopes to get more programmes underway. For the time being, it is working hard to attract more funding.

“[The initiative] provides women in the pharma industry with a forum to connect and collaborate.”

“We’re in the process right now of finalising our list of prospective donors, which will hopefully create a sense of confidence,” says Arnold. “We’re also trying to identify where we ought to be focusing our time and attention. Within the next month or so we’ll be pounding the pavement, so to speak, and talking to some of our prospective donors.”

As the industry landscape continues to shift, this is clearly a time to ask the big questions and find the most innovative answers. The ISPE Foundation is open to suggestions from anyone with a good idea.

“Certainly we can learn from others in the industry, with respect to what’s important for ISPE to focus on going forward and how the Foundation might be able to help,” Arnold explains.