In the wake of layoffs and cuts, Novartis doubles down on digital

A new innovation center called the Biome and numerous internal efforts paint a picture of a digital-focused game plan.
By Jonah Comstock
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Novartis' recently-opened digital health innovation lab in San Francisco. Photo courtesy Novartis on Twitter.

Last month, Novartis announced that it would be cutting 2,200 jobs as part of a restructuring of the company focusing on particular priorities.

“The overall strategy we have is to focus the company as a leading medicines company powered by digital technologies,” CEO Vas Narasimhan told STAT News last month. “What that has meant is to exit certain health care sectors or segments … — so we exited consumer health, our plan is to exit eye-care devices and contact lenses, we’re also trying to exit certain parts of traditional oral, small-molecule generics — and then invest in these new technology platforms to generate transformational medicines. … That’s a big strategic pivot for the company.”

While Novartis has been pursuing digital technologies in various spheres for some time, it’s significant that the CEO went straight to digital in answering the question of why the company made the cuts it did. MobiHealthNews caught up with Jacob LaPorte, Novartis’ global head of digital development, to learn more about the company’s digital strategy.

“I think what we’re recognizing at Novartis is that we’re on this journey as an overall healthcare community that is going to be significantly shaped and transformed by these new digital technology platforms like artificial intelligence and internet of things,” LaPorte said. “Certainly the pharmaceutical industry has a great opportunity at hand to leverage these technologies, to transform their operating model, and ultimately lead to discovering and developing new medicines that are more effective at a faster pace so we can treat more patients in need. So we think this is going to be a very important factor of this digital transformation and going to be a very important factor in how our industry changes.”

The Biome: A new innovation lab

Novartis is also putting its money where its mouth is in the pursuit of digital innovation. In addition to its high-profile partnership with Pear Therapeutics, which hit a significant milestone this week with the commercial launch of reSET, the pharma company also launched the Novartis Biome, a digital health startup accelerator, in October.

“The Biome really represents us wanting to be a part of that fast-moving technology and digital health ecosystem, and be a part of that conversation and be a partner to those companies in helping figure out how to create the most effective digital health solutions of tomorrow, and also … becoming faster, more agile, more nimble in how we work with these companies,” LaPorte said.

At the Biome, Novartis will mentor digital health companies and give them access to its data sets — without taking an equity stake in the companies. The Biome will also launch challenges, offer select startups a 12-month innovation curriculum and help them launch clinical trials. Novartis will have the opportunity to invest in technologies after evaluating the results of these trials.

“We think digital is a big, important opportunity,” LaPorte said. “I think we recognize that currently that’s not a core competency of pharma. So we need to have an ecosystem of partners that are helping us advance our agenda. And we have to get a lot better at developing that ecosystem and understanding which partners can really help us advance our agenda optimally. I think the Biome is really that ground zero for really understanding the ecosystem, working with partners, understanding how to get more agile and better at working with partners and providing a very good bridge for them to work more effectively with Novartis. It is one way we’re creating a pipeline of opportunities to advance the digital solutions we’re hoping to build at our company.”

Digital technology under the hood

As well as patient-facing offerings like Pear and innovation efforts like the Biome, Novartis is also incorporating a lot of digital technology under the hood — to enhance its drug development efforts, clinical trials and operations.

“I think one of the hallmarks of a successful transformation is that it’s infused into everything that we do,” LaPorte said. “Literally it impacts every person that works at Novartis.”

One example is Nerve, a data analytics engine the company is using to optimize operations.

“For some time we’ve been building an advanced analytic platform called Nerve that is really looking at all of the operational data that we’re generating on a daily basis, millions of data points, and asking the question, how can we use advanced analytics to improve how we operate, to make better decisions, to get faster and better at, for example, clinical trials,” LaPorte said. “I think there’s that opportunity to transform our operating model that’s a pretty significant one here as well.”

Another is an app called FocalView, which Novartis has been incorporating into a number of clinical trials involving eye care.

“FocalView is an application built off the Apple Research and Apple CareKit so that we can start collecting data from visually-impaired patients in our ophthalmology programs in a more remote and connected way, so that they don’t always have to come in to the clinical setting,” LaPorte said. “Because these are patients who might have trouble navigating their day-to-day lives because of their visual impairment. We want to make things easier on them and we want to also collect better and more objective data at the same time.”

Additionally, LaPorte mentioned Novartis’s partnership with Medidata and Shyft Analytics, as well as a partnership with PathAI around using AI to improve the detection of breast cancer from pathology reads.

Pear Therapeutics partnership aside, Novartis isn’t moving towards digital offerings as its main product. But it is looking to use digital tools and AI across its business as much as makes sense, LaPorte said.

“Our core competency is how do we bring the traditional modalities like small molecules and biologics [to market],” he said. “But we’re seeing this wonderful opportunity in the digital space and we’re going to incorporate more and more of that into how we think about creating therapeutics and to drive improvement in human health.”