The pandemic is a prime case study of what can be accomplished when science delivers. The pharmaceutical and biotech industry harnessed new technologies, collaborated in new ways, and worked at an accelerated pace to help prevent infections with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, and treat those who got the disease.
Applying these new ways of working will revolutionize the understanding and treatment of diseases with no available therapies.
There is tremendous hope that science — and the biopharmaceutical industry — are on the cusp of a great wave of breakthroughs with mRNA, CRISPR, cell and gene-therapies, and artificial intelligence and machine learning. Adapting them to the learning experiences of the past three years requires focusing on the transformations needed to fully leverage opportunities, many of which rest on fundamental shifts in the industry.
I see three critical pivots needed to drive the industry forward: a bold focus on discovering first-in-class therapies, an open innovation system that captures the passion and outsized goals of entrepreneurs, and a willingness to set aside traditional ways of operating.
Go bold for first-in-class therapies
For decades, the pharmaceutical industry has developed products built on a foundation of incremental innovation — and for good reason. Given the scientific challenges, cost, and timelines associated with research and development and clinical trials, it is logical to launch a product and then investigate its efficacy across different diseases over a period of time. But in today’s world, companies need to focus their R&D resources on first-in-class and best-in-class medicines. These are the innovations that will truly change patients’ lives.
Being bold in striving for first-in-class therapies means there will be successes and failures. Both contribute to the learning database, but companies need to have the judgment and courage to determine when to double-down and when to walk away.
mRNA is a perfect example. Before the pandemic emerged, it was a technology that had struggled for many years to be applied to a disease area. Today, built on the success of mRNA vaccines against Covid-19 and the speed necessary in a pandemic, many companies, including Sanofi, which I lead, are now working to apply mRNA to a wide range of diseases.
But being bold isn’t exclusive to the treatments being researched and developed. It also includes the tools used to pursue these therapies.
Moving to an open innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem
The biopharma industry is at a moment when AI and genomics are poised to transform R&D and increase the ability to develop precision-engineered medicines. Emerging leaders in AI, such as Exscientia, Tempus, Genesis Therapeutics, among others, help with speed and precision as they provide further access to real-time data and reinforce the complete end-to-end solution of AI and experimental technologies for identifying new targets for therapy, designing drug candidates, creating translational models, and selecting patients for clinical trials. This moves companies closer to accurately predicting which patients will be most responsive in studies and could ultimately allow the successful treatment of the majority of clinical trial participants.
New technologies and algorithms are making it possible to invest in areas where the best results can be obtained and simultaneously address longstanding imperatives of patient privacy and confidentiality. Individuals and companies in the biopharma ecosystem need to recognize where they are strong, but also understand where collaboration may be critical as another company may have stronger capabilities in a specific area. This is essential to moving beyond the current siloed frameworks. By adopting an open innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem, companies can more rapidly build data pools, leverage insights from analytics, and adopt new tools.
New ways of operating
Big data and technology will propel the industry forward. But they will also require shifting many long-standing processes. The industry is often criticized for hanging onto things for too long. Changing behaviors and challenging the status quo requires co-creation, iterative working, and collaborating with those who can trigger new thinking.
To develop a totally new lens on innovation, Sanofi launched an in-house digital accelerator in June 2022, bringing together data experts and professionals from outside of health care to brainstorm alternative solutions and deliver novel initiatives that break the mold of traditional pharma endeavors. Members of the accelerator team had worked for Walt Disney, French bank Natixis, and the French unicorn Doctolib, among others, and they understood market disruption and transformation. While in its infancy, the accelerator team has already started exploring creative ways to reach physicians and increase awareness around eczema in children, a disease that effects nearly 10 million children in the U.S. alone.
Innovation must be baked into companies’ DNA, not just into their R&D, and it can’t be accessible only to those who are technology specialists. AI will change the way biopharmaceutical companies will work, touching every part of the enterprise and shaping day-to-day work for all functions.
Sanofi’s partnership with Aily Labs is an example of how AI will affect the industry. Many people working in the pharmaceutical industry don’t fully (or often even partially!) understand how AI works, but still want to benefit from it. Aily provides AI in “snackable” formats in the form of Instagram-like stories, with real-time data that guides a user where to look, and signals opportunities to grow faster or reallocate resources. It points to potential obstacles before they are apparent, enabling a user to better predict the future and prepare in advance.
One example of how pharma companies can leverage this kind of technology is in clinical trials, where some companies are still relying on paper records or online data capture that isn’t easily accessible through a data pool. The Aily platform allows users to analyze the enrollment rate in real-time for their clinical trials across various regions. This information will enable pharma companies to reallocate resources to ensure that clinical trial timelines and diversity benchmarks are met.
Over the past three years, the pharmaceutical industry has realized the importance of culture and speed. Today, it is creating an enterprise culture that encompasses the agility and mindset of tech start-ups using emerging technologies such as AI and ML that open new avenues for discovery.
To maintain this purpose-driven power means that people in the biopharma industry must be bold, take risks, embrace the digital experience, and be willing to learn from entrepreneurial innovative energy beyond our industry. By adopting a new vantage point, the biopharma ecosystem will be better able to leverage the wonder of science to accelerate breakthrough discoveries and their application.
Paul Hudson is the CEO of Sanofi, a global pharmaceutical company.