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How GSK Consumer Healthcare builds out its platform business


GSK Consumer Healthcare has moved to an application programming interface (API)-first approach to developing new applications that underpin its business.

In 2019, GSK and Pfizer established a three-year consumer healthcare joint venture. Brands in its portfolio include Sensodyne toothpaste, Nicorette, and Panadol. Generally, the company’s products are distributed via retailers and pharmacies. 

The API-first approach and IT architecture GSK Consumer Healthcare is developing represents a milestone in the company’s journey to transform its business digitally. Underpinned by two initiatives, dubbed API First and Platform Thinking, the overall strategy aims to establish GSK Consumer Healthcare as a platform company, which it hopes will provide the foundations to create new products, markets, revenues, customers, customer experiences and shareholder value quickly, repeatedly and efficiently.

Describing the overall strategy, chief technology officer Will Westwick says: “GSK Consumer Healthcare operates within a global digital and data economy where our products and services are delivered through an ecosystem of colleagues, partners, suppliers and customers.

“The true value of this digital ecosystem can only be properly realised through an API-first strategy. These modern architectures enable a repeatable, secure and scalable way for GSK to create new digital experiences, products and commercial opportunities quickly and collaboratively.”

The API-first strategy was kicked off in September 2020, following a seminar run by the company’s chief digital officer, which, according to Nakul Vyas, head of innovation platforms for Americas and consumer healthcare global at GSK, looked at how the business can exchange value with consumers directly.

He says that the team hacked together an API to provide information on one of the company’s vitamin C products: “We had an API to search via zipcode to find the nearest place where it is available.”

The API took just 15 days to build and deploy, and experienced a huge uptake from consumers, proving that people were happy to connect directly with GSK Healthcare to find out more about the availability of a product.

The API-first approach was also used when the company started building out a new commerce-driven chatbot service. Describing how this works, Vyas says people are able to chat about their symptoms and pick products, which are then delivered directly to their home. “We had 55 year olds buying direct from GSK,” he adds. Behind the scenes, retailer Walmart was used to fulfil the transaction.

Proving APIs work is one thing, but having APIs underpin the business is an altogether more fundamental approach to business and IT. Vyas admits that among the initial challenges is that an API is considered an aspect of IT. The company used a quote from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos explaining how the company mandated an API-led approach since 2002, to illustrate the significance of thinking about APIs first and foremost.

At the time, Bezos said: “All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalisable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.” Interestingly, the Bezos quote, which has been captured on Github, goes on to say: “Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired.”

Vyas says that GSK Consumer Healthcare also created a team of 10 to 15 API champions to speak about API culture and to help change preconceptions.

For Vyas, an API is nothing more than a waiter in a restaurant, to connect a request from a customer with the kitchen. Describing how IT integration was previously running at GSK Healthcare, Vyas says: “When the CIO wanted to handshake information between our systems, we used to recreate the same function.” Clearly, building the same integration functions time and time again is not efficient use of IT.

A GSK presentation used to discuss the importance of an API-first architecture described the old way of IT integration as “trying to eat in a restaurant that offers neither menu nor waiter. Diners need to describe dishes from scratch, hunt ingredients themselves, and make their own trips to and from the kitchen”. 

Working with consulting firm Whitespace, Vyas says GSK Healthcare began looking at how the API-first approach can be deployed in a way that adds business value and improves usability. GSK Healthcare also wanted to have the ability to use APIs to enable it to feed in external information into its IT systems. “It’s not a technology play. It’s about a business interchange, how to evangelise the use of APIs, and using a catalogue,” he adds.

One example of taking a business-led approach occurred when the company’s chief marketing officer needed a way to bring in different data, combining community insights, GSK data and store insight. Working with Whitespace’s Innovation Network, the company looked at how an API-led approach could be used to enable pharmacists to see trends based on postcode areas. 

In April 2021, GSK Consumer Healthcare began providing a retail data exchange. Vyas says the company now works with retailers such as Walmart and Target in the US, Alibaba in China, and Tesco in the UK to exchange real-time targeted consumer information. Google Apigee is used as the API platform.

GSK Consumer Healthcare has delivered 17 APIs and has 24 API projects in the pipeline, and has developed personas to help it to understand how different groups of people would make use of APIs.

For instance, the supply chain team has now used APIs to partner with third-party carriers such as Amazon to distribute products. This understanding of the value of APIs is beginning to spread through the company. “Our doctors are starting to understand the use of APIs,” Vyas adds.

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