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Partnering, Business Development & Licensing
Drug Dev

Giving a Pharma Giant a Tech Startup Makeover

Posted by on 11 December 2019
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Bertrand Bodson, the new Chief Digital Officer at Novartis, is only a year into his post, yet he’s already changing the DNA of the pharmaceutical giant, building on his years spent transforming retail experiences.

You started with Novartis in January 2018 after more than a decade working in digital transformation within the retail industry. Tell us more about your background. 

I started at Amazon more than 15 years ago when it was still what I’d call a “startup plus.” That was fascinating and I’ve been involved in digital transformations ever since. I ran my own business, and then I helped transform Argos, a brick-and-mortar retailer in the UK into a digital e-retailer that could compete with Amazon. We took our small format stores and turned them into a new kind of asset by leveraging those stores as local distribution centers and reshaping the buying experience completely. You could order your washing machine online at 6 p.m. and have it delivered before 10 p.m. the same night. That work helped Argos catch the eye of Sainsbury’s, which is like the UK version of Walmart, which acquired Argos in 2016.

How would you characterize the transition from retail to pharma? 

It’s a whole new world. There is a lot to learn, especially from a biology and science perspective so one can be credible and understand the business challenges. There are also a lot of analogies between the two worlds. The markets I worked in previously got disrupted quite dramatically, and now you see all the same signs in healthcare with the likes of Google, Microsoft and Amazon, all moving into this space. When you see the startups, the vibrancy of the StartUp Health ecosystem, you can sense that it’s really time for something big to happen. This period of disruption is an incredible opportunity. I love StartUp Health’s health moonshots, and this is our chance to have our own, with the muscle of a $200 billion market cap organization that spends $10 billion each year on R&D. I couldn’t resist the challenge. There are also a lot of analogies in terms of mindset. How do we use data wherever we can to enhance the customer experience, especially those that have a 50% drop-off rate in terms of medication adherence? How do we build the right tech infrastructure and backbone? How do we create systems that meet patients and doctors wherever they are, rather than requiring them to come to us? How do you create more nimble teams? At Amazon we called them “two-pizza teams.” If a team was too big to share two pizzas, you had to break it down. So the question became, how do we bring this entrepreneurial spirit into Novartis. That’s a core element of my role.

How have you seen tech solutions begin to manifest during your first year as Chief Digital Officer at Novartis? 

The appetite for change is massive and we’re seeing it across the organization. In November we announced the launch of reSET, the first FDA-authorized prescription digital therapeutic for Substance Use Disorder, which we’ve launched in partnership with Pear Therapeutics. This shows how we’re using data and digital to reimagining medicine. If successful, this could open up the entire area of digital therapeutics. In terms of research, we’re mining more than two million years of clinical trial data and pre-clinical data to find new biomarkers and new end points for example. This is happening on all of our major brands; we’re right in the thick of it. In clinical trials, we’re working with partners like Science 37 on decentralized trial models to help address the fact that only five percent of eligible patients get access to clinical trials. Instead of requiring them to come to us, we’re using telemedicine technology to bring trials to patients. In the commercial space, we’re working with Aktana to equip our 20,000 pharma sales reps with an AI-powered digital assistant that mines data from the 100,000 interactions they have with doctors each day to help make their meetings as personalized and meaningful as possible. We are starting with a focus on our two biggest products Entresto and Cosentyx and are currently live in six priority markets.

What have been some of the challenges of bringing digital transformation to such a large organization? How can you do it successfully? 

Thankfully, there is a massive appetite for this change among the executive team. Together we committed to what we call our 12 digital lighthouses, which are priority areas where we want to have significant impact. For those we agreed to commit the resources, budget, teams and attention needed to go after them at scale. More importantly, we’ve embarked on a cultural transformation at Novartis, encouraging teams to be inspired by curiosity and adopt an entrepreneurial mindset. One of my key priorities is to take the 120,000 associates working at Novartis and bring them onboard with this digital transformation. For some of them, it’s about demystifying what data and digital is all about. For others, it comes down to running simulations to give people the opportunity to get hands-on with our data and systems. But the big challenge is how we change the way we work to be more agile. That requires daily stand-ups, regular meetings to assess progress and getting the right people around the table. It requires breaking things down into more of a startup mentality, while still maintaining Novartis’ muscle.

That sounds like a massive organizational shift. How much of this challenge is around mindset, versus being a technological challenge? 

Half of my job really is about helping create the right company culture and it helps that we’re reshaping the company culture more broadly, something Vas, our CEO, is championing across the organization.

If this cultural shift is a success, what will Novartis look like three to five years from now?

I’d love it to feel like “StartUp Novartis” to some extent. I want it to have that kind of pace without us losing our muscle and ability to scale. I want to see us embracing partnerships in even greater ways, hence why we recently launched the Biome and HealthX, a digital innovation lab and series of open innovation challenges so we can better partner with the health tech ecosystem to develop digital solutions that scale. This is all helping boost the entrepreneurial mindset within the organization, that natural curiosity to know more about technology and the ways in which data and digital can help us. I’m also massive on partnerships because I fundamentally believe that the world will change dramatically in the future. It won’t just be big pharma because we don’t have all the answers. Many people out in the market are part of the answers and they could be incredible partners. I’m not a big fan of vendors, and people at Novartis know that, but I’m a massive fan of partners. When you enter a world where science, data and technology are really getting closer to each other, the question becomes, how do we find the partners who can really help us accelerate growth? How do we show those potential partners that we’re open for business?

Who is an out-of-the-box partner on your radar?

We are really interested in China and the ways in which the country has completely reshaped its health system in the last three years. There are 700 million people using WeChat and now they’re using that infrastructure to deliver AI-powered triage, telemedicine through WeDoctor and built an insurance layer into it as well. Earlier in the year we launched a pilot with Tencent in China that involves adding QR codes to the labels of Entresto and Exforge, two key cardiovascular drugs, which patients can scan via WeChat for more information on the drug, disease, reimbursement and to see whether or not the product is counterfeit. This is a good example of how by using the expertise of both parties we can unleash the potential of data and digital to enhance the patient experience, and eventually provide better care to people in need. It’s really a foray into reimagining healthcare as we know it.

What advice do you give to entrepreneurs interested in partnering with a top tier pharma company? 

It can be hard for an entrepreneur to work with pharma, whether it’s a team of three or a more mature startup that’s raised $40 million. These organizations are large so it’s difficult to find an entry point and when you do you get bounced across different divisions. There’s incredible speed on the entrepreneurs side and incredible strength on the pharma side. So we spent time thinking about how we could make this much easier, and show that we are serious. That’s why we created the Novartis Biome digital innovation lab in San Francisco. It’s not only a co-working space, but provides participating partners with access to a custom 12-month curriculum and internal mentors. We asked entrepreneurs: What else do you need from us? Many said that they needed data. So we’ve been working on building some personalized sandboxes for startups, depending on their needs. Others really wanted to get access to validation studies in real clinical settings. That’s why we created a partnered lab with HITLAB and Columbia University. The partnership with StartUp Health really makes sense in this regard too because instead of building it from scratch, we’re considering how we can tap into this “global army for good.” That doesn’t mean that every startup will become a partner, but it creates a culture of collaboration and entrepreneurial spirit which is so important.

What common themes have you seen in working with entrepreneurs lately? 

I love seeing these two worlds collide, because we have so much to learn from each other. I see it with our recent partnership with Pear Therapeutics, to some extent. They naturally say, “Guys, let’s move so we can bring good ideas to market faster!” On the Novartis side, we say we have to build the infrastructure to support it, making sure we have reimbursement, patient support, regulatory frameworks, etc. It can be a sort of marriage of adults and adolescents that I find brilliant, each pushing the other. The key is for us to be clear about what we’re really good at, where we can help startups and where we need to get out of the way. For instance, in pharma right now we are generally not good at creating great customer experiences. We don’t excel in user design. Often we’ll do a project and then we’ll think we’re done, whereas any good startup in the world would keep iterating, and sees their first version as their worst version.

How do you cultivate your own sense of curiosity in this new role? 

I feel like I was born curious and the jump to the pharma space is a sign of that. There’s a lot of reading that goes into it. I’m taking some classes at MIT right now on the fundamentals of biology, to make sure I can understand the basics of the science. I have tutors at Novartis who are helping me better understand our key drugs. I’m spending a ton of time on R&D from that point of view. To a broader extent, being exposed to startups offers a wave of curiosity and new ideas.

Where do you see great untapped opportunities for health entrepreneurs going forward? 

We have 6,000 scientists, 250 data scientists and 20PB of data. We have and are managing more data than ever before, it is also more complex and we are focused on finding new insights, faster and with more accuracy than ever before. Within research the acceleration of AI has opened up the possibility to generate insights and find patterns that are beyond traditional human capabilities. For example, many researchers at Novartis are pursuing the possibility that AI could help explain why some patients respond to therapy when other seemingly similar patients do not. To explore this further, data scientists have joined forces with PathAI to train an AI system to learn to see the same patterns pathologists see. This is part of a larger effort at Novartis to leverage data and digital technologies in ways that could help drug developers bring drugs to market faster – something we are deeply committed to. From a commercial perspective, we have 12 mega-launches coming up in the next three years. That’s massive for us. If I were an entrepreneur, I would look at these launches and really try to understand them and see what the key pain points for each are. I would look at the big gravitational centers in pharma and help address those issues. I’d encourage entrepreneurs to be at the core of the dialogue that we’re already having.

Final Remarks

It still takes 10 years and $2.5 billion to get a drug to market. Somewhere there must be a better way to do that. We need entrepreneurial blood, data and scientific knowledge to come together to reimagine medicine. That’s our moonshot, and we’ll take all the help we can get.

Learn more pharma and digital technology insights from the experts at Novartis during the busiest week in healthcare. Robin Roberts, the Co-Founder, Managing Director, and Head of Strategy at Novartis Biome and Robert Dickinson, the Site Head of Novartis Biome San Francisco, will be speaking at Digital Medicine & Medtech Showcase January 13–15, 2020.  DMS20_BANNER_900x100 This article was originally published on Startup Health.

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