For several years now, various players around the logistics of temperature-senstive pharmaceuticals have looked into blockchain technology, and some have adopted blockchain-like features in their data-handling systems. Now, one of the leading providers of cold-chain packaging—Sonoco ThermoSafe—is plunging in with both feet. The company has partnered with IBM to set up what will be called the PharmaPortal platform, and the stated goal is to develop a vendor-neutral to “to trace assets across many different supply chain participants, record a single version of the truth on all events generated on a package’s journey, integrate this data with that of other businesses across an industry-scale network, and provide access controls to help ensure each data owner maintains control over who can access it on the network,” according to Sonoco.
IBM has invested heavily in blockchain for the past several years, mostly involving HyperLedger Fabric, one of the version of blockchain that supports “smart contracts” (a way to have self-acting files or documents that could, for example, complete a sales transaction when the correct data has been provided). Around 2017, it announced the IBM Food Trust, which now has over 200 member organizations that share data on the provenance, quality and status of food products in a supply chain.
Paul Chang, global industry lead for blockchain at IBM, says that the company’s “production scale” development of blockchain enables a relatively fast ramp-up of capabilities, including cryptography for protected messaging, permissioning of participants and other services. A built-in feature of IBM’s implementation is GS1-standardized messages, such as GLN (Global Location Number) and EPCIS, a framework to record supply chain events. (Pharma supply chain managers involved in compliance with the Drug Supply Chain Security Act will recognize the value of these GS1 standards, which are state-of-the-art in that application.)
Unlike IBM Food Trust, however, Sonoco ThermoSafe is setting up PharmaPortal to be governed separately from IBM; according to Christopher Day, director, marketing and innovation at Sonoco ThermoSafe, PharmaPortal will eventually be governed by its members. In blockchain-speak, Sonoco is the “convener” of what will become a “permissioned network” (meaning that only credentialed organizations can be members).
Data is the product
Sonoco’s PharmaPortal, as innovative as it promises to be, is only one of many approaches to cold chain tracking. Longtime US and international standards have required pharma cold-chain shipments to be monitored, even in transit from one location to another; now blockchain promises to make this data shareable to trading partners In recent months, two companies, va-Q-tec and SkyCell, whose products partially overlap with Sonoco Thermosafe’s, have ongoing blockchain-related projects. Among logistics providers (for all countries and industries) there is a Blockchain in Transit project. Meanwhile, a variety of telecom solution providers are offering systems and software to manufacturers to collect their own shipment’s operation and performance, in some cases duplicating the data collected by the container provider or by the freight forwarder. If the interoperability issues common in tracking the identity of drug shipments (DSCSA compliance) is any indication, the industry is heading for multiple blockchains and multiple interoperability issues..