Also in the “outsider” category is Bertrand Bodson, chief digital officer at Novartis. Bodson’s career includes time at Boston Consulting Group, Amazon, Sainsbury’s, EMI Music, and a startup he cofounded and sold. Two things drew Bodson, a Belgian citizen who’s lived and worked in Europe and the U.S., to his current role: the sense of purpose and the opportunity to have impact at scale. Whereas many pharma companies have tiptoed into digital, Bodson has executive commitment and a 10-year investment. His work extends across R&D, drug development, commercial, technical, and new business models. “I like that canvas,” he says.

He sees Novartis as the largest startup on the planet, noting life sciences companies run thousands of experiments before arriving at a potentially viable compound. And yet “it still takes 12 years, $2.5 billion, and a decreasing return on capital expended to bring a drug to market,” notes Bodson, who alludes to a future where developing medicine is a computational exercise and engagement happens on patients’ own terms.

Initially, Bodson thought the role would require more change management to empower curiosity, learning, and entrepreneurial thinking among 120,000 employees. “I didn’t know how big the appetite would be,” he explains. It turns out many people wanted to join what he calls “the digital army.” Bodson is rapidly building a team of 1,500 people across numerous functions and going long on partnerships.

For Bodson, effecting change hinges on establishing concrete programs and projects, such as a collaboration with Data42 to bring all of Novartis’ data sets together in hopes of new discovery. “We have been sitting on over 20 years of patient trial data, comprising about 2 million patient years, but we have never mined that data vertically,” he says. He wonders what new insights this data set might yield, from a more efficient drug combination to novel population subsets. On the commercial side, Novartis recently announced the launch of an AI assistant to better prepare reps, serving up the right assets at the right time.

Digital therapeutics are also on his list. When Novartis-owned Sandoz and Pear Therapeutics launched reSET for treatment of patients with substance use disorder, each party brought its strengths to the table. The startup drove an aggressive timeline. Sandoz brought the expertise in commercialization, patient support, and reimbursement. In this new world, partnerships are key. “That is why we opened Biome,” says Bodson of the newly launched digital innovation lab.