Sanofi VP touts two-pronged approach to innovation, digital health

By Jonah Comstock
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Sanofi’s approach to digital health is broad, but focused, Rachel Sha, the company’s vice president of digital business development and licensing, told MobiHealthNews in an interview ahead of the upcoming BIO 2018 conference in Boston, where Sha will be speaking on a range of digital health-related topics.

“At Sanofi we’re lucky in the sense that we have a very clear set of digital priorities that have been supported at the highest level in the company and even with the board of directors,” Sha said. “So we have clarity around what’s important to us.”

The approach is broad because the company applies digital and innovative solution across all appropriate areas of the business. But in each of those areas, it’s focused on two strategic priorities: drug discovery and development and what Sha calls “drugs plus”, ways in which hardware and software can be bundled with drugs and improve outcomes.

And in all areas the company relies on partnerships, especially with startups and larger tech companies, to bring those innovations to Sanofi.

“In terms of partnering we don’t have a one size fits all approach,” Sha said. “We do deals that range from preferred partnerships to joint ventures to collaborations to even structured M&A. … We partner closely because we feel, unlike on the life sciences side, the time window between our equity investment and partnering is actually quite small. So we work actually pretty closely together in many of the deals that we’re working on.”

An example of the first strategic priority is Sanofi’s work on clinical trials with Science 37.

“They have a really interesting approach to clinical trials. It’s the metasite model or distributed study model. We’re hopeful that this in many ways inverts the clinical study model,” Sha said. “…it’s leveraging telemedicine to allow patients to participate at a time of their choosing in the comfort of their own home and relying on wearables and devices to remotely monitor them and get a much better sense for their progress over the course of the study [in] realtime or on a continuous basis. That’s a company we’re really excited to be working with and we hope to share a little bit more about that.”

Another partner, TriNetX, has a large database that allows Sanofi to pre-test trial designs for feasibility.

“The last thing we want to do is to stand up a study and then find out patients don’t actually exist of this type or it’s really a suboptimal design,” Sha said. “That adds time to clinical trial duration, because you have to amend it to get in the right patients, and it effects the execution of these studies. So at this point we’re running all of our trial designs through the platform to get a sense for feasibility of conducting these studies and making sure that the patients exist and we understand what the tradeoffs are in terms of certain designs that we’re making.”

On the other hand, the second strategic priority, drugs plus, is exemplified in Sanofi’s still-largely-stealthy joint venture with Verily Life Sciences, called Onduo.

“Onduo is our joint venture with Verily Life Sciences where we are developing a diabetes virtual clinic, so it’s sort of a more comprehensive offering,” Sha said. “We have been in stealth mode for some time but Onduo has partnered with BCBS and has gotten some early experience with the first generation of the platform and I think the feedback has been good. But it’s on a trajectory and I’m sure they’ll be sharing more specifics on the experience so far.”

This area of innovation is really about developing a diverse range of technical options to enhance the treatment of different disease states or customer groups.

“You have to start with what is the problem or what is the unmet need,” Sha said. “And that varies patient by patient and population by population. It’s not a homogenous need. So in some cases a simple app that provides education or guidance might be good enough. In other instances you might need a device that’s monitoring how you’re doing with coaching, with apps, maybe some advanced analytics give you some guidance on your trajectory. There’s a place for each of these tools in the toolbox and it depends on the needs of the disease.”

Sha, who only recently joined up with the digital team at Sanofi, says the company’s digital group moves uncharacteristically fast for a pharma company, a feat she attributes to strong leadership.

“I’ve been here less than a year, but what I see is the digital group has a freedom to operate that is very unusual for a pharmaceutical company of that size,” she said. “That’s really interesting to me and another thing that’s really interesting to me is that it’s led by women. We’ve got a tour de force and these women are super savvy and they are finding assets that are otherwise undiscovered.”