Recognizing that digital technology is here to stay in the business of healthcare, pharmaceutical companies have not shied away from collaborating with the folks in Silicon Valley.
“There’s a lot of hype,” said Rachel Sha, VP of Sanofi’s digital business development & licensing unit. “We work really hard to identify companies that don’t just have nice slides, but actually have early experience and data showing the impact of their technology.”
Sanofi sees digital tools as playing a huge role in its business – whether its technology that can help accelerate the development of new therapies or solutions that can be packaged with a drug to boost outcomes for patients and providers.
As head of Sanofi’s digital health partnering group, Sha helps decide which external partners Sanofi should work with.
“We make sure to match internal business needs with the right kinds of companies that are interested in working with us,” she told us.
To start, Sha and her team identify problems that Sanofi is interested in solving. And if they don’t have the capabilities internally to execute, they’ll turn to potential partners. There exists a “healthy tension,” Sha said, between looking to build internally or reaching for an outside expert – ideally, they would like to have the skills and expertise in-house.
But Sha noted that she sees immense value in finding people that are the best at what they do, especially since technologies evolve so rapidly.
There are a number of qualities that Sanofi looks for in a strong partner, according to Sha. A potential partner for the pharmaceutical giant will bring a novel technology. The technology might be relatively complex or elegantly simple, but regardless it must show some thoughtfulness about the user, she said.
“One criterion that is not often talked about is the team and their ability to execute effectively,” she added.
Sha highlighted the company’s partnership with Verily – the healthcare group owned by Google parent Alphabet – as an example of a team that complements each other.
The two companies launched a joint venture, Onduo, in September 2016 in an effort to create virtual clinics for patients with diabetes and their caregivers.
“It’s a problem that frankly many companies are trying to address and we think the collective capability of Verily, with their expertise in miniaturized electronics and consumer-facing apps and analytics, combined with Sanofi’s expertise in disease, therapies and understanding how patients and physicians manage diabetes, together can work to develop a novel set of solutions to tackle this epidemic,” Sha said.
Sanofi and Verily come from two different worlds, she noted, but they each bring an important perspective. From a product development standpoint, tech and pharma have completely different timelines; while tech companies iterate on the fly and learn from the marketplace, pharma companies often work for several years before a product even gets to the market.
Sanofi doesn’t just pick partners that are well established, like Google, according to Sha – they’ll also take bets on young companies. But in doing so, they make sure to define the scope of their relationship and to establish mutually-agreed upon milestones.
Moving ahead this year, Sanofi plans to unveil a range of additional transactions with partners in the digital health space – from startups to spinouts to large tech companies.
“The pipeline is very full and rich,” Sha said.
See Sha discuss biotech, pharma and the digital revolution at the BIO International Convention in Boston from June 4-7.