Anders Dyhr Toft’s journey to pharma nirvana started in an unusual place: on a rescue helicopter in the French Alps. An avid skier, Toft spent three winters jetting among 14 resorts in the region, providing emergency medical care to individuals injured on the slope. While he passed his summers in a more conventional manner — working in hospitals in and around Denmark — it was the time spent in the air that shaped him as a professional.

“I had the normal white-coat jobs, and I saw it all from above with the helicopter perspective,” he says. “I felt like that covered a lot, especially at a younger age.”

That first job has, in a way, informed everything that followed. Currently a top innovation executive based in Novo Nordisk’s Denmark headquarters, Toft learned much of what he needed to know about collaboration and listening while heli-patroling the slopes. “If you aren’t able to collaborate in a rescue helicopter when you’re picking up and stabilizing patients, it doesn’t work,” he says. “You can’t sit there and be the ‘smart doctor who knows better.’ You’re a technician. Everybody is even.”

He joined Novo Nordisk around 16 years ago, a decision that owed as much to his curiosity about pharma as to an overarching desire to use his medical degree in a novel manner. “After those three years in the helicopter, I kind of asked myself, ‘What kind of adult career as a doctor do you want?’” he recalls. “I’m the type of person who likes to know everything before I make a big decision. The only career avenue I knew nothing about was the pharmaceutical industry.”

After conducting his due diligence, Toft learned, somewhat to his surprise, the research he’d done qualified him for a handful of roles at Novo. His first job there was in the realm of medical affairs, a stint that delivered a crash course on anticipating and accommodating the needs of patients and physicians. He eventually served on the team that brought Victoza to market, an experience he describes as a “fantastic journey. Building the scientific dialogue around a compound that was truly new in class isn’t the type of thing everyone gets to do.”

In pharma, you need to meet people where they are in their [medical] problem and their understanding of the solution you’re offering. Too many [marketers] try to [engage] all stakeholders right away.

Anders Dyhr Toft, Novo Nordisk

Despite the success of the launch effort — and eventual blockbuster success of the drug itself — Toft freely acknowledges he was far from a finished product as either a physician or a commercial executive. “I was talking, moving, and acting too fast,” he recalls. “In pharma, you need to meet people where they are in their [medical] problem and their understanding of the solution you’re offering. Too many [marketers] try to [engage] all stakeholders right away. They dive too fast into decision mode.”

Toft saw the perils of such quick reactions firsthand during his next role, a stint in London as the medical and clinical director of a U.K. affiliate. During those years, he burnished his administrative skills, learning how to manage the relationship between an affiliate location and the corporate mothership. But he also more intimately familiarized himself with the day-to-day challenges of Novo’s sales force. “Until you see it up close, you have no idea how much firefighting there is when you’re so close to market,” he says.

Toft completed his Ph.D. in inflammation while working in London; later, he’d earn an executive MBA at the prestigious International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland. It was during his business studies that he experienced what he describes as his professional “eureka” moment.

“I came to the understanding that I could apply my medical knowledge and my solid understanding of the needs of all customers, and apply that in the commercial space,” he recalls.

His colleagues embraced him, and the way he goes about his business, almost immediately. “[Anders] possesses very strong technical skills coupled with a very strong sense and understanding of the pharma business,” says Kirstine Brown-Frandsen, M.D., corporate VP of global medical affairs at Novo Nordisk and an associate professor at Warwick Medical School. “He has a huge heart and wants to see his peers succeed.”

Toft assumed his current role — “a dream job” — about six months ago. In it, he’s responsible for a wide slate of activities: most are related to digital health, but it also includes patient-support programs and devices, connected and otherwise, for the injection of Novo’s medicines. He believes his experience in medical affairs has influenced his thinking, especially vis-à-vis the range of audiences with which he expects to interact.

“Being in medical affairs gave me knowledge of the value chain in a company such as Novo Nordisk. You’re involved from early to late in drug development. You’re part of putting the product out to people and you get feedback from professionals,” he says.

At the same time, Toft recognizes innovation leadership roles demand a certain toughness and acceptance of risk that pharma in general has historically found difficult to stomach.

“I’m willing to take calculated risks. It doesn’t keep me awake at night,” he continues. “Everything we do in my department we have never tried before in this company. The way to put is it that we set a lot of small ships to sea, and see some sail and some sink. That’s something we’ve been very used to as an industry in R&D, but in the commercial space it’s sort of a been a no-go to fail.”

It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to link Toft’s easy embrace of risk to Novo’s success in partnering with digital-health startups and device makers. Globally, the company has worked alongside Dexcom, Glooko, Roche, and IBM Watson Health in the diabetes realm. With the launch of its NovoPen 6 and NovoPen Echo Plus connected insulin pens expected early this year, Novo renewed its partnership deals with Dexcom, Glooko, and Roche “to support the future integration of its connected pens with broader digital health solutions,” per a Novo press release from October.

Toft is blunt about one of the reasons behind Novo’s successful partnerships: “We’re the world’s biggest diabetes company and biggest insulin marketer, so it’s attractive for parties to engage with us.” But he says none of the enhanced partnerships would be possible, much less successful, without a product that, in his words, “closes the loop in the ecosystem.”

What Toft means by that, he continues, is “the companies we’re partnering up with have, say, blood glucose meters connected to smartphones. But that’s only half of what is needed. People need to see how much insulin they’ve taken and how much insulin they need.”

We believe data belongs to people, not to us. They might allow us to access it so that we can do research, but it’s theirs.

Anders Dyhr Toft, Novo Nordisk

Perhaps to avoid directly criticizing other organizations, Toft doesn’t discuss a third reason for Novo’s partnership successes until specifically asked about it. As opposed to many of its competitors, the company believes in a nonexclusive approach to these relationships.

“We believe data belongs to people, not to us. They might allow us to access it so that we can do research, but it’s theirs,” he explains. “Why should we do exclusive partnerships around that data? That would be wrong, because it’s more beneficial to patients if more partners can access that data.”

Toft comes across similarly thoughtful when responding to a question about the challenges that other A-list pharma players have faced in their own partnerships. His name-no-names belief? That most have attempted to make a splash for the sake of making a splash.

“Some [organizations] might not have totally made up their mind about what they wanted before they entered into very big contracts with very big companies,” he explains. “It was like they had to show they were committed to digital health, so they dove into it a little blindfolded.”

For any organization not achieving the results they expect, Toft suggests prioritizing patient concerns. “Everyone who has done this has developed solutions and products where the patient was forgotten and it was all about the business model,” he explains. “Some teams are innovating just because they can and maybe have forgotten that it’s not about the app.”

So whether they involve more connected devices or AI coaching — or both — expect Novo’s next moves in digital health to focus on that patient-first approach.

“You must always remember that people with chronic disease don’t need more hassle,” Toft continues. “In anything we do, there needs to be net relief. People with diabetes are dealing with elevated cholesterol and elevated blood pressure, and in many cases are overweight or obese. Managing their insulin, which is where we come in, is maybe No. 10 on their priority list every day. If we make any part of [disease management] more complicated, we have failed.”