change, transform

In early 2018, pharma giant Novartis set its sights on a digital transformation. The Covid-19 pandemic pushed that transformation into overdrive, said Bertrand Bodson, the company’s chief digital officer, in a pre-recorded Tuesday session at the HLTH conference.

“It feels like we already have done more over the last five months than we were meant to do over the next two years,” Bodson said. “This also comes because of the heavy investment and the focus we have put on this over the last two years, as well, so it’s really all coming together.”

At the heart of the transformation is a reliance on data science and digital technology to spur everything from drug discovery to manufacturing to customer engagement. The broad goals are: shortening by two years the time drugs take to reach the market; reaching twice as many patients twice as quickly; and simplifying operations, Bodson said.

Concrete steps include making it easier for outside partners, from startups to big tech firms, to work with Novartis.

“We realize we’re not easy to work with,” Bodson said. “We realize that part of it is regulated, part of it we put our own complexity in the way, we have too many interfaces. So, we started treating startups and external partners truly as our customers.”

A key part of the effort has been the creation of spaces that Novartis calls Biomes, which Bodson describes as homes where startups can work collaboratively with Novartis. The company currently operates four Biomes, in San Francisco, the United Kingdom, France and India. It is looking to add nearly a dozen more, including in Asia, Australia and South America.

Bodson also cited Novartis’ recent partnerships with tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft and Tencent. Novartis is working with the Chinese internet giant on a digital platform to help people manage chronic heart disease, a leading cause of death in China. Amazon, meanwhile, is working with Novartis on a digital transformation of the pharma company’s manufacturing and distribution operations. Microsoft is helping Novartis take advantage of AI in drug research.

Bodson ended his session with a focus on the need for tech talent in areas such as AI, user experience, software development and digital marketing. In that vein, Novartis sponsored a survey of 1,500 tech professionals this summer to gauge their attitudes toward heathcare.

Of those surveyed, 86% said they believed that health care’s digital moment had arrived and more professionals are interested in working in the field: 72% said they are more likely to consider working in health care now than they were six months ago.

“However, we also noticed, and there is a however, that 40% expressed that they were nervous about this space,” Bodson said, noting they were worried they did not understand biology, chemistry or other sciences at play in medicine.

Nonetheless, he said, health care can benefit from diverse professional viewpoints. “My message to the audience on that is, we need the best of each of those disciplines to really come together. That’s what we do in life sciences, as well. We get science, technology, data together. We need more of those talents that think outside of the box.”

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