Editor’s Note: This story is based on real-world facts, but given the sensitive nature of the issue, the names have been fictionalized so as not to violate any confidentiality agreements.
We’ve talked a lot about how companies slice and dice their data to find their spin, a simple insight buried in their data. Sometimes this leads to finding a hidden group of whales, sometimes it leads to discovering new product ideas, sometimes it leads to optimizing your marketing funnel.
And sometimes it saves lives.
That’s right. Data can save lives.
A Tale of Two Pharmaceutical Companies
In 2018 ICN Pharmaceuticals (ICNP), a relatively small and very innovative drug research company, partnered with a behemoth drug manufacturer, GPC Biotech. Their goal was to develop a drug that cures liver cancer.
Getting a new drug to market is a long, arduous process that often leads to failure. Measuring and analyzing data is a critical component of drug trials. The two companies worked together for years, but unfortunately after many trials, the data didn’t look too promising. The treatment shrunk tumors in only 15 percent of all cases.
Feeling like they had better things to focus on, GPC decided to give up on the research. They were happy to exit the project and sell ICNP the rights to continue working without them.
And Then There Was One
The researchers at ICNP were not ready to give up so easily. No, 15 percent effectiveness was not good enough, but they felt like the science behind the drug’s development was sound.
They had a hunch that the secret might lie in the data, so they put one of their data scientists, Malcolm Kimbrel, on the case. Now, Malcolm is a bit of a nerd and loves his job. He was already on several other projects, but he didn’t care. He was up for the challenge. Malcolm took the assignment and agreed to work weekends to help out.
Diving Deep Into the Data
The team’s hypothesis was that something might be off with the trial data. Malcolm spent his Saturdays slicing and dicing the data rather than partying with friends. There had to be an anomaly in there somewhere.
One weekend, around midnight (and after about five cups of coffee), Malcolm rubbed his eyes. He spotted something weird about the data.
30 percent of the ineffective cases came from one site in Greece!
There was no reason why people in Greece would respond differently to the treatment, and the sample size was large enough to signal that something was amiss. Venturing further into the data, and his coffee pot, Malcolm found the smoking gun: The Greek test subjects were given the wrong dose! They only received half of the amount that was needed.
Once Malcolm removed the mis-dosed population, he found that the drug effectively reduced tumors over 40 percent of the time. All of a sudden, the drug was an extremely promising breakthrough. This gave ICNP the confidence to continue investing in the drug. And while it will likely be another five years of continued research and testing before there is a marketable drug, this insight saved it from getting dumped all together.
What Other Companies Can Learn
There is a broader moral here for any company, regardless of industry: When something looks wrong, it probably is wrong. Segment your data and look for outlier groups. Dig deeper. Then apply common sense. Is there an actual reason for the anomaly? If not, you might have an error in the process. If there is an actual reason for the anomaly, then perhaps you have stumbled upon a new insight.
The other lesson? Make sure you find a Malcolm to help your business.
While we can’t promise data will save lives every time you use it, we love hearing stories like this. Please drop us a line if you have other examples of you or someone on your team finding game-changing insights in the data.
About the Sterling Woods Group, LLC
The Sterling Woods Group’s mission is to help clients make sense of their data to build deeper relationships with their best customers, launch new products and membership programs, and execute smarter marketing strategies.
We use a hypothesis-driven, data supported methodology to discover your “spin”—a simple insight that no one else is paying attention to. Then, we help you assemble the right technologies, marketing plans, and resources to seize this opportunity.
About the Author
Rob Ristagno, Founder and CEO of the Sterling Woods Group, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. Throughout his career, his focus has been on embracing technology and analytics to spur strategic development and growth.
At the Sterling Woods Group, he and the team are passionate about helping clients understand their best customers through data, and developing products and membership programs that exceed expectations – and generate impressive revenues.
Committed to spreading this message, Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors and is a regular keynote speaker at conferences around the world. He has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and Digiday.
He holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.