How Novartis is embracing the digital and data revolution

A look at the Swiss pharma giant's efforts to digitise operations.
By Leontina Postelnicu
12:02 pm
Share

Credit: Novartis

Home to around 40 museums, including Fondation Beyerel, Basel is famous for its vibrant art scene. But for the past 250 years, the country’s third largest city has also established itself as a hotspot for chemical and pharma innovation. It hosts the headquarters of two of the largest pharma companies in the world, Novartis and Roche. In fact, two predecessor companies of Novartis, Sandoz and Ciba, are said to have produced their first pharmaceutical substances here at the end of the 19th century.

Embracing digital and data is a top priority for Novartis, chief medical officer John Tsai told journalists on a media tour at the company’s campus in Basel this week. But according to Ronenn Roubenoff, global head, translational medicine discovery & profiling, and musculoskeletal translational medicine, at Novartis, the pharma industry has not been at the frontline of this revolution, taking advantage of the opportunities that it brings. 

“Mostly that is because we live in a very regulated world,” Roubenoff told Luisbrandao. “And I’ve learned, because I’ve been leading the digital stuff for early clinical development, that the cycle time in electronics and in digital is so much faster. It’s like, you know, we think in terms of, three years is fast, and they [technology industry] think that three months is fast. I think that’s one big factor.”

The lack of internal knowledge to help them assess the claims made about certain technologies was another reason pharma was lagging behind other players, Roubenoff said. “If somebody says, oh, I’ve got this wonderful device and it’s going to do everything except slice bread for you you know, how do we know whether to believe it or not? We’ve actually now hired people who are experts in electronics and digital stuff and engineering, so that we have the ability to not evaluate what people tell us, but also to be good partners. We don’t ever think we will be the people making digital devices, but we want to be smart consumers and smart partners and that’s what we’re headed. So that just took a while to really achieve.”

And for a company with over 500 ongoing clinical trials and around 300 projects in clinical development, it was clear that Novartis needed to get to grips with digital transformation. 

Thorsten Rall, global head of digital strategy and programme operations, said the potential of digital and data presented itself in three areas: automating repetitive tasks and processes, improving decision-making, and allowing for a bigger focus on the customer.  

“These three elements around automation, decision-making support and customer experience you can translate pretty much one to one to the pharma industry,” Rall said. “Our digital transformation is really covering the whole value chain of Novartis end to end. And that means you’re bringing those different levers in to use our data that we have around R&D to not only support the development of new drugs, but as well to make them go to patients and reach the patients faster.” 

Investing in digital transformation

To achieve this, Novartis has allocated a significant amount of resources to launch programmes that would allow them to bring digital capabilities and tools at scale, as well as investing in building the underlying technology platforms required to do so, and skilling up associates to be able to use those solutions. 

“Our CEO Vas Narasimhan has really made a huge effort on making sure that we embrace and take advantage of the digital revolution that’s coming, not only in terms of digitising our data,” Roubenoff said during his presentation.

“John [Tsai] told you [in an earlier session] about data42. We have two million patient-years worth of data here, collected over 20 years, and yet it’s been sitting, the data have been sitting in different little spreadsheets all over the place, in different project teams, in different piles. And what we’ve done now is bringing them all together into one searchable database that is going to be accessible to scientists at Novartis so that they can start asking questions of the information we don’t actually know we have.”

The company has introduced digital approaches across all parts of its business. An example of this is a programme of digital transformation called Nerve Live, led by Luca Finelli, vice president and head for insights, strategy and design, data science & AI. It centres around a platform, also called Nerve Live, that brings together relevant operational (non-patient) data and uses machine learning to generate insights about ongoing activities, based on three components: a data lake, an analytical engine, and apps (or modules). 

One of these apps is SENSE, which Novartis defines as its “control tower” for clinical studies. The aim is to help them identify any potential risks that would cause delays or pose additional costs, offering an understanding of the status of clinical trials to address problems before they appear. Two SENSE centres are now operational in Basel, with the rooms described by Roubenoff to look “like something out of Mission Impossible”. 

Retaining and attracting top talent  

These are only a few examples of the digital work being done at Novartis, and it is clear that the company has even bigger plans for the future. But it also knows that it is competing against tech companies in terms of attracting and retaining the best tech talent. 

“What attracts technology talent to Novartis is the vast amount of untapped data that we have for them to discover, they hear from Novartis about the type of commitment we have across the entire team, from the CEO and board,” explained Miriam Donaldson, global head of people and organisation for digital.

“Equally important are the investments that we’re making in our own associates, because we need a mixture of the technology, data science, digital knowledge, as well as the industry understanding, people who understand the challenges and opportunities, to interact more effectively with patients and other stakeholders,” Donaldson said. “We need to bring both sets of skills together, so we look at it from a, how do we attract the best tech talent [perspective], but also how do we scale up our whole organisation at Novartis.”

Meanwhile, for Rall, the understanding that digital and data needed to be embedded into the core of the entire organisation was setting Novartis apart from others in the industry.

“What we realised really early onwards, if we really want to make a difference for the millions of people that could benefit from our therapies, and at the same time to create meaningful value to [sic] our shareholders, digital and data cannot exist as some sort of like isolated bucket sitting at the sidelines of what we do at Novartis,” he explained. “So, we understood that it has to be an integral part, to make this a strategic priority, and that’s what we did. Digital and data now really touches [sic] every element of Novartis.”


Editor's note: This story was reported in Basel, Switzerland on a media trip paid for by Novartis. Luisbrandao maintains its editorial independence and made no promises to Novartis about the content or quantity of coverage. The first photo is of Basel, Switzerland [Getty Images], while the second one is of the Novartis campus in the city [Novartis].