In recent years, interest in blockchain distributed ledger technology has crescendoed and crashed. Boosters of the technology proclaimed that it could revolutionize everything from the pharma supply chain to business contracts. However, critics lamented that the technology often appeared like an expensive solution in search of a problem.
“There’s been a lot of false promises around blockchain technology and what it can do,” acknowledged John Ward, CEO of the Dublin-based blockchain company ServBlock focused on the biotech and pharmaceutical sector. “Blockchain is probably not going to save the world,” Ward said.
The recent wave of backlash against cryptocurrency, and by extension blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies, could offer clarity, Ward said. Or, to cite the analyst firm Gartner, the crash of blockchain into the so-called “Trough of Disillusionment” could pave the way for more rational applications of the technology in the coming years.
“Blockchain isn’t crypto, and crypto isn’t blockchain,” Ward said.
“We think we can emerge from the shadows of what’s happened to FTX,” he added.
Primed for transformation
Ward believes that regulated manufacturing is primed for transformation. Distributed ledger technologies such as blockchain can help “reduce a lot of the redundancies and the triple- and double-checking of data that can often occur,” he said.
Most of the legacy data systems used in the industry are siloed. And some of the largest pharma and biotech companies still rely on paper-based records.
“I guess it’s an industry that’s inherently built on distrust,” Ward said. “The regulators distrust the companies. The companies distrust their employees, and employees distrust every other actor in the supply chain.”
Servblock aims to reduce the industry’s reliance on “multiple layers of checking, rechecking and validating data,” Ward said, while also unifying data disparate streams while promoting trust.
The idea for Servblock came to Ward in March 2020 when working as a pharma consultant focused on validating. When working in a factory for a large CDMO, Ward sat in a factory checking paper-based documents.
“And I’m sitting there thinking to myself, ‘Man, there has to be a better way to do this,’ Ward remembered.
“‘There’s no need for me to travel halfway across the world to check these certificates. And why am I rechecking them? The vendor and manufacturer have already checked them,'” he told himself.
The pandemic lockdowns that would follow reinforced Ward’s interest in automated technology to streamline validating in the pharmaceutical industry. Ward went back to college to study computer science to find potential solutions. “I learned this particular problem is very well suited to blockchain technology,” Ward said.
In a way, blockchain technology supports ALCOA, an acronym for the five principles of data integrity. The acronym stands for “attributable,” “legible,” “contemporaneous,” “original” and “accurate.”
In a way, blockchain is essentially ALCOA out of the box. “We have this extremely robust system of data integrity that can be shared between multiple actors,” Ward said. “You also have additional technology, such as smart contracts — newer technologies layered on top of a very solid foundation that contains data integrity.”
ServBlock support from Microsoft, material suppliers and medtech
In late October, ServBlock announced that it was collaborating with Microsoft’s Early Access Engineering program to create a new business case to use non-fungible token (NFT) technology to meet compliance standards. NFTs are cryptographic assets on a blockchain. (We interviewed Microsoft in 2018 about their exploration of blockchain in the pharma supply chain.)
“A lot of people think an NFT is an expensive picture of a monkey, but in reality, it has quite a business use case,” Ward said. An NFT resembles a certificate of analysis but has an audit trail pointing back to that original data source. “So you can see full traceability of the data where it’s coming from,” Ward added. “And you can exchange that data in a trusted manner.”
The alliance with Microsoft has given the company access to “cutting-edge technology that has not been released to the public,” Ward said. “We get to use some of the most advanced tools available and give them to our clients, which has been a game changer for us.”
The company has also received EU funding to create a data exchange system for outsourced pharmaceutical manufacturing.
Regarding customer traction, Ward points chiefly to raw material suppliers supplying the pharma industry.
Servblock is also working with medical device manufacturers.
The company has an API-driven platform that can often be deployed in one or two days.
“It really boils down to trusted data exchange, being able to exchange data between different partners in the supply chain in a trusted and verifiable manner,” Ward said. “We don’t even look at our clients’ data. We are just in the middle of this data exchange.”