Kristin Milburn

head of strategic partnerships and the digital acceleration lab


There are many reasons that Milburn is perfectly suited to serve as one of the leaders of – and exceedingly articulate evangelists for – Novartis’ digital-health initiatives. But perhaps the most compelling is her background: She’s seen it all. 

Prior to arriving at Novartis in 2015, she worked with a range of Fortune 500 companies focused on health and technology. From her agency-/consultancy-side perspective, Milburn was able to understand the challenges associated with instilling a digital-era mindset in organizations that, perhaps, weren’t as nimble as they liked to believe. “It’s hard to encourage people to take risks, and it becomes even harder when you get further and further from the day-to-day business for a client, as the visibility into the natural opportunities that arise to suggest innovative ideas becomes much less frequent,” she explains in response to emailed questions. “Teams end up playing it safe and defaulting to things they’ve always done before, because it’s a safer bet.”

That wealth of experience has informed Milburn’s work at the still-new Novartis Digital Acceleration Lab (DAL). Whereas the unit’s first year was about forging partnerships and fine-tuning its experimentation model, its second has found the DAL becoming a huge part of the company’s plans moving forward. “It’s really about industrializing our service offerings within the company, helping build and encourage a culture of fast and efficient experimentation, launching micro-pilots, and most importantly sharing learning from what works and doesn’t work across our entire global footprint,” Milburn reports.

That’s no small series of tasks, but Milburn and her DAL peers have tackled them with a fearlessness that distinguishes Novartis from many other pharma companies attempting to evolve with the times. In Milburn’s telling, however, the road hasn’t always been a smooth one. As much as digital-innovation units have become a pharma mainstay, few are more than a few years old. 

Asked about the biggest challenges the DAL has faced to date, Milburn says, “Inertia, driven by fear of trying new things.” Regular communication, especially to reassure audiences not fully comfortable with digital-era tactics and mentalities, has also proven essential. “It’s key for a group like ours. We can’t operate like a black-ops unit with no connection to the core business, or we’ll appear out of touch with the reality about what keeps our company growing – and, more importantly, helping patients,” Milburn says.

Up next: a range of initiatives involving sensors, predictive algorithms, and adherence solutions. Additionally, look for Novartis to leverage more of its DAL learnings in the clinical-trial environment. 

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