Sanofi came into 2012 staring down at the steepest patent cliff in the industry. Plavix, for which Sanofi’s share of 2011 global sales was $2.6 billion, lost US exclusivity in May. Avapro (2011 sales of $1.6 billion) went off-patent in March, and Eloxatin ($1.2 billion) followed in August. Lovenox and Taxotere were already facing generic competition. The company came out of the year bigger than ever—having surpassed oil and gas giant Total as France’s largest company, and Pfizer as the world’s largest pharma—and emerged better than expected, with full-year earnings projected to fall 12%, as of this writing, rather than the 15% anticipated earlier in the year.

Perhaps more importantly, instead of battening down the hatches, Sanofi set the bar for engagement of external audiences, with innovative digital media programs, a groundbreaking gadget and visionary contests aimed at pulling up-and-coming techies, scientists, patient advocates and non-profits into its orbit. What? A giant pharma company getting out and being social, exhibiting a spirit of openness, even hopefulness, as it sloughs off much of its old business and reinvents itself? How do you say “Geddoudaheah” in French?

“It’s been an incredibly tough year,” concedes Anne Whitaker, president, North America, pharmaceuticals, Sanofi. “One that people were holding their breath over—would we get past May 17th, when Plavix went off patent? What would happen when Eloxatin went off patent in August? The fact that we’ve come through the year and delivered growth on our North American net sales line—I think a lot of people thought that wasn’t possible.”

Sanofi’s North American operations account for 18,000 employees and around a third of revenues—just ahead of its business in emerging markets. Net sales for the first nine months of 2012 were up 2.1%—outperforming a worldwide 1.2% uptick.

With so many of its big products lapsing into patent oblivion at once, Sanofi is in the process of a root-and-branch reinvention. The company has a promising pipeline and new products, like colorectal cancer treatment Zaltrap and MS drug Aubagio, with potential. More importantly, it’s got a vision—laid out by CEO Chris Viehbacher. Under Viehbacher, Sanofi has diversified, going from a small-molecule blockbuster pharma model to a mix of biologics, vaccines, generics and OTC products, along with some promising pilots in “beyond the pill” tech and services.

The n4a Diabetes Care Center team, winners of Sanofi’s 2012 Data Design Diabetes Innovation Challenge. From left: Steve Lindstrom, Chief, Program Development & Operations, n4a Diabetes Care Center; Courtney Baldridge, Team Lead, n4a Diabetes Care Center & Business Development/Corporate Relations, n4a; Gary Puckrein, CEO, National Health Index, National Minority Quality Forum; Marguerite Linteau, RN Clinical Advisor, n4a

It’s also embraced an outward-facing culture of “open innovation” spanning the breadth of the organization, from marketing to R&D. On the development side, that’s taken the form of a pivot away from strict reliance on internal R&D in favor of partnerships with biotech startups, academic researchers and venture capital firms, to name a few. On the marketing front, that’s meant less focus on product promotion and more on engagement of patients, physicians and payers, as well as some innovative programs drawing in patient advocates, medical societies, techies, government officials and other parties. It’s a kind of crowdsourcing writ large—which makes sense coming from a company that, more than its peers, gets social media and feels right at home in the digital world.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the company’s digital efforts around diabetes, its sole franchise to come through the past few years intact (Sanofi sold more than $5 billion-worth of Lantus globally in 2011, and sales of the insulin analogue were up 20.7% for the third quarter of 2012). Sanofi’s diabetes blog (Discuss Diabetes), Twitter feed (@Diabetes_Sanofi) and Facebook page ( are kept up by Community Manager Laura Kolodjeski, who has lent the company’s digital presence personality and a human face. There’s also Diabetapedia, a searchable dictionary. It all comes together in The DX, an online diabetes news aggregator curating external content. None of these elements is, by itself, revolutionary, but the comprehensiveness of their approach to social media is farsighted for a pharma company.

“We did this not to find different ways to promote our products, but we really wanted to get a deeper understanding of what are some of the common challenges, opportunities and other things our patients are dealing with,” says VP and head, US diabetes, Sanofi US, Dennis Urbaniak. “We quickly understood that the social community aspect is not an advertising channel but a way for a company to get closer to those communities we serve.”

Sanofi’s outreach extends beyond patients and caregivers. In 2011, the company launched its Data Design Diabetes Innovation Challenge, a contest in which the best ideas for using data and technology to improve  patients’ lives are rewarded with cash and connections (the company sponsors a similar contest, Collaborate | Activate, for patient advocacy groups). What’s in it for Sanofi? Food for thought, and perhaps first pick of some talented up-and-coming techies.

This approach to other interested parties in the healthcare universe extends to R&D, where the company sees its role as investor in the drug development programs of smaller biotechs on equal footing with its in-house efforts. And it’s evident in Sanofi’s partnership with AgaMatrix on the iBGStar, a groundbreaking blood glucose monitor designed to plug into the iPhone. Sanofi CEO Christopher Viehbacher said in an e-mail, “Those companies who can manage a more integrated solution, who can marry technology with traditional medicines…we believe will provide Sanofi with a competitive advantage.”

That foray into personal tech followed the 2009 launch of the GoMeals app, a calorie counter on steroids on which Sanofi partnered with agency InTouch Solutions, which now handles its social media business for US diabetes and a number of other social media brands and assignments.

“We have a lot of smart people at Sanofi, but we don’t have all the ideas,” says Whitaker. “We don’t have the corner on innovation and we see the power in our people being externally focused. We believe collaboration is critically important.”

A big part of what’s carried Sanofi over the patent cliff intact can be chalked up to an old-fashioned acquisitions binge. But when the company acquired Genzyme in 2010, Viehbacher vowed not to “Sanofize Genzyme” and instead grafted best practices from the biotech onto Sanofi.

“Our philosophy at Sanofi now, especially in North America, is that communication is not a one-way street,” says Whitaker, who conducted a three-month listening tour when she took over as president of North America in 2011. “It’s dialogue, and people need to talk about the vision and the strategy so that they can understand what their role is in delivering on that. And when you have those kinds of conversations all the way through the company, and you create an environment where it’s okay to have those conversations, you get real alignment.”