7 questions: Sandoz’s Christian Pawlu

In the fifth in his series of articles with companies involved with this year’s Frontiers Health conference in Berlin, Marco Ricci speaks to head of Divisional Strategy at Sandoz, Christian Pawlu.

Christian Pawlu

Where do you think technology is likely to make the biggest change to pharma?

In the long run, I think artificial intelligence (AI) is set to transform the way the pharma industry operates, as part of the overall data analytics revolution. Its potential impact could be across the value chain, from how we do R&D to ensuring compliance and generating real-world evidence. We will probably also end up seeing robotic surgery, full personalised medicine, tailored disease management, etc. But there’s still a way to go before we get there, and the more immediate impact will probably be in areas such as clinical trials and healthcare delivery.

One very topical example is the appropriate use of antibiotics – topical because this week is Antibiotic Awareness Week. At a media event organised last week by Sandoz, Lord Jim O’Neill, author of the UK government’s Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), identified rapid diagnostics as possibly the single most important lever in the battle against AMR, calling for all developed countries to act to end the prescription of antibiotics without an associated diagnostic test by 2020.

What role will pharma play in the adoption of technologies in healthcare?

I think the industry will be just one key player as this area develops. We are already seeing new entrants including Apple and Google evaluating healthcare-related opportunities and Amazon potentially entering the pharmacy distribution chain.

Within the pharma sector, many current opportunities involve use and digitisation of existing data, for instance, to make trials faster, more accurate and less expensive. Novartis, for example, is working with data analytics group QuantumBlack to mine vast troves of existing data on trial site performance across multiple sites.

This is just one part of a broader digital revolution that Novartis believes could reduce costs and timescales by as much as 30%.

What areas of pharma/healthcare are in need of digital disruption?

For the healthcare sector overall, we see potential across the board – starting with the digitalisation of paper records within national healthcare systems!

Overall, while the pharmaceutical industry has not always been the fastest mover in this field to date, the potential for rapid progress now – potentially even ‘skipping a generation’ in technology terms – is enormous. But the needs differ depending on the players and the area they operate in.

At Sandoz, we see two main applications for digital. On the one hand, we are looking at ‘digital transformation’ of the way we work, using new technologies, including big data and software-based automation. But the immediate opportunities involve “digital enablement” – using existing technologies for incremental improvements in areas including e-commerce.

What obstacles remain that are preventing faster uptake of disruptive technologies?

The obvious obstacle is the technologies themselves. When it comes to the transformative options, we are all in learning mode, despite some positive early results. Other obstacles include legal and ethical issues, for instance around the appropriate use of patient-related data, and these should not be underestimated.

And we should not neglect the human factor – it is one thing to roll out smart new apps to drive compliance, but it’s something else to make the majority of people keep using them once the initial ‘thrill’ has worn off.

Where has technology made the biggest impact on pharma/healthcare to date?

We are probably seeing the most immediate impact on healthcare delivery. This ranges from improved diagnostic equipment (macro level) through to smaller innovations that are already making a real difference by driving access to healthcare at the local (micro) level, particularly those based on mobile technologies. The importance of these small, local, technology-driven solutions should not be underestimated when looking at the big picture.

One of my favourite examples comes from the co-winners of our Sandoz HACk competition 2017. They are linking islanders in the Maldives with a database of local hospitals, using geolocation alerts to promote blood donations that can save the lives of children with the blood condition thalassemia.

Regarding your own background, how is your company using technology to improve healthcare?

At Sandoz, we are working to use technologies to improve across our value chain, from the way we innovate to the way we sell and the way we operate.

In terms of how we innovate, this includes a number of ideas to move ‘beyond the pill’, for instance by using software-based approaches. However, this may still be some way in the future. In terms of how we sell, we are exploring ways to optimise pricing and tendering processes, engage more closely with customers, and improve resource allocation. In terms of how we operate, this includes data-powered approaches to portfolio selection, automated regulatory processes, and automated back-office processes.

Which technologies do you think have the most potential for improving healthcare?

To me, clearly AI, but within the overall framework of the data analytics revolution. From a Sandoz perspective, we see particular potential in the long run for beyond-the-pill, technology-based solutions. In the immediate future, we see the most potential in leveraging automated approaches to portfolio selection, regulatory maintenance and automated back-office work.


Frontiers Health will take place in Berlin, Germany on 16-17 November 2017. Christian’s colleague Fiona Cook will be delivering a keynote presentation on day one of the event. To find out more, click here.


Read previous interviews in the series: