Novartis recently announced the appointment of Dr. Vas Narasimhan as the new CEO.  He assumes the CEO responsibilities effective February 2018.

His appointment is a recognition that the industry is entering a period of transition and Novartis is readying itself for the future.  We are seeing the emergence of the next generation of industry leadership who are more well-suited to address the forthcoming technology-based disruption.  Dr. Narasimhan views the future of Novartis as a “…medicines and data science company—centered on innovation and access…”

There are a couple things that are notable about the appointment of Dr. Narasimhan.  The first is his background.  He comes to the role with a strong background in medical science.  In his current role, he is the global head of drug development for Novartis.  This is in contrast to his predecessor who has a commercial background.

The second notable aspect of his appointment is his stated intent to make data science a core capability of the firm’s business.  Dr. Narasimhan is looking to data science to enable “…productivity revolution…” at the Swiss drugmaker.  While the overall numbers and time duration are subject to some debate, the drug discovery and development process has historically been a long expensive process with a high rate of failure.  Anything that can be done to shorten time it takes to bring life-saving therapies to market is a benefit to society.

Within the next decade, Artificial Intelligence (AI) in R&D will become the norm.  The leadership of the Life Sciences companies need to start framing the future—what will the world look like in a decade and what do we need to do to prepare?  How will AI impact the industry?  If machines are able to read everything, then what does this mean for the R&D community?  How will a firm like Novartis capitalize on these new capabilities to fuel innovation?  If leadership fails to grasp the significance of these changes and set the appropriate strategy, the risk of disintermediation is significant.  Google, and others, are hard at work in this space.

The following statement is attributable to Dr. Bertalan Mesko.  I modified a quote of his and made it applicable to the application of AI in drug discovery and development—Artificial Intelligence will not replace the clinical researchers; however, the pharmaceutical companies that apply Artificial Intelligence to augment the clinical researchers (and across the broader ecosystem) will replace those who don’t.