How would you build a pharma company from scratch five years from now? That’s the question Novartis chief digital officer Bertrand Bodson asks himself. “What would be different, from talent to drug discovery to commercialization?” This is the role of the chief digital officer in a 21st-century pharma organization.

This new C-suite title first came into vogue in the early aughts. But when Takeda named Bruno Villetelle its first chief digital officer in 2014, and Bayer did the same that year with Jessica Federer, pharma signaled it was finally reckoning with a new world order — it could either change with it or be left behind. In 2016, Saskia Steinacker took on the role of global head of digital transformation at Bayer. In the same year, Marc Leibowitz joined Johnson & Johnson as global head of health technology and digital health.

In early 2017, GlaxoSmithKline made waves when its consumer health unit hired Marc Speichert as chief digital officer. With a career that included time at L’Oréal and Google, Speichert was the definition of “an outside hire.”

Then the avalanche came. Heather Bell took on the role of SVP, global head of digital and analytics at Sanofi in February 2017, Bodson was named chief digital officer of Novartis in January 2018, and Jim Scholefield left Nike to become chief information and digital officer at Merck in November 2018.

And at the beginning of this year, Lidia Fonseca began her role as chief digital officer of Pfizer. (At press time, Sanofi had appointed Ameet Nathwani as chief digital officer, in addition to his current role of EVP, chief medical officer.)

Gone are the days of the internet kids convincing pharma to tweet. Today’s chief digital officers are charged with digital transformation across the entire value chain. They come to the table with deep management experience from a breadth of industries, including beauty, retail, apparel, big tech, startups, and yes, pharma. Why now? They are motivated by the opportunity to work on something meaningful (health) in a new way (digital), and in a big way (at scale).

Sara Holoubek is CEO, Luminary Labs, whose clients currently include Sanofi and Pfizer.