Saving the World at Speed: What can Pfizer & BioNTech’s breakthrough vaccines teach us about delivering innovation at pace?

By Avik Kar, Product Strategist

In the history of medicine, vaccines have rarely been developed in under 5 years. The record goes to a mumps vaccine which took 4 years to see the light of day. So Pfizer and BioNTech’s recent rapid success to produce a COVID-19 vaccine is nothing short of a miracle.

With many other pharma behemoths making promising strides of their own, at HYD we’ve asked ourselves what it really means for an entire industry to be able to deliver such innovation at such speed. Focusing on Pfizer in particular, we’ll explore the tactics that were put into place to get their vaccine out fastest to market.

The Ability to Pivot Quickly

We know that businesses strive to rapidly adapt to changes in their market to deliver great experiences for their consumers. Initiated in August 2018, Pfizer’s partnership with BioNTech is not the result of a knee jerk reaction to the pandemic, rather a strategic move to combine their capabilities. Pfizer spotted an opportunity to harness a more nimble organisation’s suite of innovative technologies which enable individualised disease treatment — in ways that are quicker and cheaper than other options in-market.

An already established partnership allowed Pfizer and BioNTech to pivot existing R&D streams in order to mobilise resources to find a solution to COVID-19. Specific tactics to draw on complementary capabilities include:

What can other businesses learn from this approach? We live in agitated and uncertain times, where companies premised on new technologies are eclipsing traditional incumbents, and we are all being expected to pivot at a moment’s notice (no one would have imagined an entirely remote-first working model at the start of this year!).

Adapting is not so much a competitive advantage as it is a necessity. Seeking out ways to innovate should figure in the agendas of business leaders everywhere. By mobilising squads whose core purpose in the business is to diagnose inefficiencies and compose ways in which digital tools can help improve them can be of real benefit. They set the foundations of resilience and adaptability that are crucial for any company to survive.

Adapting is not so much a competitive advantage as it is a necessity.

A Laser Focus On Achieving Positive Patient Outcomes

The most innovative businesses keep customers at their heart. Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, employs a lean startup mindset, embracing “failure” as a means to learn. Even when a product or service delivers clear proof points, the learning process continues through analysis measurement and iteration.

In the early stages, Pfizer’s research groups predicted that a vaccine would be accessible by 2021 earliest. Hearing this, Bourla encouraged his teams to think in different terms. Before fixating on feasibility, they should work in parallel rather than sequentially. That is to say, using a lean startup mentality, the teams were to test multiple hypotheses quickly, with a view to focus energies on the vaccines poised to be most effective for patients worldwide.

Instilling the customer-first mindset across your value chain (not just amongst those in customer-facing roles) will not only unlock true value for the end beneficiaries of your product or service, but will also boost motivation internally, as employees are empowered to visualise the true impact of their day-to-day contributions.

A Change in Organisational Structure

Due to the global impact of COVID-19, businesses have been forced to make unprecedented changes to their organisational structures. Back in March, Pfizer launched their “Five-Point Plan” to battle the virus, which highlights their call to inter-industry action:

This open approach to sharing information and resources with other pharma companies and stakeholders will unlock a new way of working that is set to endure. The message for other businesses here is about providing all employees with a clear focus on very specific challenges that make up the overarching problem, before working to find multiple solutions.

If you’re at all interested in extending a dialogue around organisational innovation, or are intrigued by what HYD can offer your business, please get in touch with Rob Pisacane, the Head of our Innovation team, at

HYD is a new type of digital consultancy. We create organisational change through designing great digital products. Find out more at: