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While even the Munich Oktoberfest with over 6 million expected visitors was cancelled due to the coronavirus, online conferences and virtual events are shooting up like mushrooms. What does this mean and what do you have to pay attention to as an organizer?
Organizers are venturing new ways from presence to online events. Some things are bumpy at first, but the learning curves are steep once you get involved, as the following examples show.
A lightning start – in two weeks to a major virtual event
Paul Simms, Chairman & CEO of eyeforpharma, tells me on the phone that the decision to hold the 2-day conference in Barcelona, which is planned for the end of March with more than 2,000 expected visitors, as a virtual event was only made two weeks before. After the pharmaceutical companies had imposed travel bans, a series of cancellations of participants came in over a period of about 6 weeks. The mood at the organizer was increasingly clouded. But the decision to use video transmission was a real jolt for the almost 10-member event team. They worked day and night to get the virtual event up and running.
All speakers and many sponsors were involved. Hotels and flights were cancelled and the speakers had to be familiarized with the new conditions. Since the tickets were refunded or were free of charge, the number of registrations could quickly be expanded to 15,000. The original 2-day conference with 7 parallel tracks turned into a 5-day video broadcast with many live presentations, panel discussions and interviews. ZOOM was chosen as the platform and the partly pre-recorded presentations and interviews were streamed via VIMEO. The individual sessions had an average of 1,000 listeners, reports Paul Simms.
From 150 to 15,000 participants – it works!
But online conferences don’t have to reach this size and the typical planning time is rather 6 weeks. I was booked as moderator for the 7th MedTech Rheinland-Pfalz on 12 May. About 150 participants and over 20 exhibitors were expected in Mainz for this conference. At the end of March, the Ministry of Economics of Rhineland-Palatinate informed me that this event was also to be cancelled. Marlen Peseke and Daniela Arnold at the Ministry of Economic Affairs reacted curiously to my suggestion to transfer at least some of the content online. After all, the topic of artificial intelligence and robotics in medical technology, as well as an area such as Rhineland-Palatinate, are virtually predestined for innovative online formats.
We met with Michael Alf, an organizer of virtual events in a video chat to understand the technical requirements. When Alf was still living in Australia in 2015, he started organizing virtual events and is well acquainted with the different possibilities and platforms. We are now preparing the event on May 12th in bilateral exchanges by mail and telephone and weekly video-jour fixes.
The MedTech Rheinland-Pfalz will be hosted on Hopin. This platform represents a conference and fair in a virtual world. After the participants have registered, they will arrive at the virtual reception area on 12 May from 12:30 pm. They will be able to visit more than 20 different exhibition booths and talk to the exhibitors in video chat and get information about their offers. Or they can go to the networking area to chat for a few minutes with another randomly selected participant – just like having a coffee at the trade fair reception – but in a private video room.
Networking & visiting the trade fair – it also works virtually
The presentations will start at 1 p.m. with a welcome by the Minister of Economics and a key note by Bart de Witte, followed by a panel discussion with four experts. After a virtual coffee break, which will once again provide an opportunity for a visit to the exhibition and networking area, the participants can go to one of the three parallel one-hour break-outs from 3 p.m. onwards, where topics will be discussed in greater depth. Afterwards there will be another break and the break-outs will take place again. Each participant can therefore attend two of the three sessions. During these sessions, listeners can ask questions or speak up via the chat – the moderator then opens the microphone for the questioner.
The preparation – What is different?
Preparation is similarly intensive as for analogue events, but it contains different facets. In addition to all content related program issues, which are comparable to those of a physical conference, virtual formats are not about room size, seating or catering, but about aspects such as the best web browser or pixel sizes for the virtual exhibition stands. Such technical details must be clarified with exhibitors and speakers in advance. Detailed briefings by Michael Alf and his team are available for this purpose.
Virtual meetings – there is even more to it…
Alf observes how new online formats are constantly coming onto the market. He sees a future in playful applications in which participants are teleported into a virtual world with avatars and VR glasses. But in the life sciences and health industry, which still operates in a very traditional way, you don’t have to go as far as with avatars. Why not simply create an advisory board as an online meeting via video conferencing?
Virtual congresses – just get started & gain experience…
From my point of view, virtual meetings as well as physical meetings enable knowledge transfer and exchange among experts. What if the wave of global solidarity that we have just witnessed in the efforts to combat the pandemic were not a one-off event. What if experts from all over the world were to exchange ideas in virtual formats and develop solutions together? What if global crowd-intelligence really became tangible? In the Healthcare Shapers network, we are already practicing this with our approximately 100 partners, and not just since we founded our chapter in the USA in 2019. Experimentation generates new ideas and innovation. This is precisely why I believe that virtualization should now be boldly pursued rather than cancelled. I am happy to support you in this.
The electronic patient record is a good example of how far Germany lags behind countries like Scandinavia and the Baltic states in digitalization. It doesn’t look much better with other digital health solutions that could improve the dialogue between physician and patient. The lobbyists of the established players like to invoke legal barriers and data protection to explain why digitalization in the healthcare industry is progressing at only a sluggish pace. But in fact, the real motives, besides a lack of billing opportunities, are also the fear of losing control and fierce competition. In addition, change is usually experienced as a painful process accompanied by difficulties. That there are cases even in the healthcare sector where “Industry 4.0” is taking place today, can be seen in areas where patients are not directly involved.
Job descriptions shaped by digital requirements have arisen, for instance, in the drug development process. Here, researchers aim to identify targets where a medicament could be applied in the course of an illness. Quantitative system pharmacology supports them in describing biological networks as a numerical model. Take, for example, big data: large quantities of tissue or DNA samples of healthy and ill patients are compared in order to identify patterns. This would not be possible without digital tools such as learning systems and artificial intelligence.
Anomalies in, for instance, individual molecules are then analyzed more precisely in a dialogue held among IT experts, biologists and medical professionals. By means of algorithms, the studies are quickly screened that are relevant in a particular context from the thousands of medical articles published around the world. In this way, such pharmaceutical researchers compare their own results with the literature and recognize what substances may be effective and possibly alleviate or heal diseases.
Learning from others — practical experience
Speaking of researchers: as Lars Hanf, Director Marketing Communications at the pharmaceutical and laboratory equipment supplier Sartorius, explains in the video, 74 percent of scientists search for information online nowadays, no longer going to libraries. He explains in six and a half minutes how Sartorius started digitalization via e-commerce, and provides tips for digital projects. There is no one digital master plan, but rather every company has to develop the plan that best suits its individual circumstances. Lars Hanf advises beginning first with straightforward projects and then expanding them systematically. He stresses the importance of a learning and error culture, and proposes putting together teams with both specialist and digital skills. Above all, you need people who enjoy trying something different as an end in itself.
Starting out right and creating value right from the beginning
The hardest part is getting started, and digitalization doesn’t begin with e-commerce for every company. As experience shows, forward-thinking companies make use of digitalization for three different strategic aims:
- Optimizing processes
- Better collaboration with customers and suppliers
- New business models
This raises the question for healthcare decision makers of how and where the deployment of digital solutions should begin, what tools are useful for this, and how digital change processes can be managed.
When prioritizing possible topics and activities, it helps to evaluate the potential of digital solutions along the value chain. This view highlights what work steps become superfluous through digitalization. Since the actual disruption often begins here, a potential and competitive analysis along the value chain shows which other players are ahead in the game. It is first necessary to gain clarity about what areas of your company can achieve the greatest added value by using digital solutions, as well as to clarify at what junctures it would be better to work together with partners with greater digital expertise.
As soon as you have established your strategic aim in deploying digital solutions, you need to select, adapt or develop from scratch suitable technologies. But caution is advised. Though technology providers like to imply that IT solutions can be changed as needed and adapted to a company’s specific situation, the reality is frequently quite different. It is therefore crucial to recognize potential conflicts of interest and learn from previous experience. A dose of pragmatism is a good guide here.
In the subsequent technical implementation, which entails adapting and improving structures and work processes and thus involves cultural changes, the added value for companies is in consistent implementation. Only in this way will the gains in efficiency be reflected at the end of the day in results. Starting digitalization therefore requires, besides thinking and acting in an entrepreneurial manner, the right combination of industry experience, strategic competence and technological understanding.