Pratap Khedkar, the highly regarded head of ZS’ pharma vertical, has become the third CEO in the consultancy’s nearly 40-year history.

He was elected to the post by the company’s leaders, replacing Chris Wright. ZS term-limits its CEOs; Khedkar’s initial term is set for three years.

“It’s very collective. I serve as the voice for the [leadership] team, as opposed to someone imposed on it,” Khedkar said.

Given his 21 years at ZS, Khedkar was an obvious candidate for the post. At the same time, his role had expanded beyond its initial pharma remit to include the firm’s AI and data science offerings.

Not surprisingly, then, Khedkar has set “turbocharging our digital direction” as one of his three immediate goals. “There’s the idea of completely digitizing commercial promotion in life sciences, but there are also applications in R&D and the supply chain,” he said.

To that point, he noted a client study ZS conducted prior to the pandemic. “One hundred percent of [clients] were talking about digital capability-building, especially on the commercial side,” he explained. “They were working toward it before COVID hit, but when it did everybody on the client side became interested. It just exploded.”

A second priority is to help pharma clients more effectively manage the ongoing convergence of science and technology. While Khedkar believes that the industry accepts the urgency to better align these operations, he said progress has been slow in coming.

“Increasingly, to do good science and R&D, you have to be really good at technology. It’s not just about the problems of a scientist in a lab coat working on cells in a petri dish,” he explained. “Biological science and information technology need to be married. Right now, they’re interested but they’re not yet together.”

The third item on Khedkar’s priority list is to eliminate business-to-business and business-to-consumer distinctions, and instead urge clients to think in terms of business-to-broader-health-ecosystem.

“Pharma and life sciences are just two players in a bigger ecosystem that includes payers and regulatory and technology and so much else,” he said. “The idea is to work together to make this ecosystem work for the patient… We’re in a very good position to marry the lofty aim with the nitty-gritty mechanics.”

Khedkar acknowledged the challenges ahead, both short-term (the continuing and halting recovery from COVID-19) and longer-term (effecting meaningful change in an industry that has historically resisted it). Still, in the pandemic’s wake, he is optimistic about what lies ahead.

“Pre-COVID, people were happy working the way they were working. Generally everybody was doing well – pharma, med-tech, health plans,” he said. “You heard, ‘Yeah, the system as a whole does feel a bit broken,’ but the individual incentive to change was not very powerful.”

After 18 months of pandemic life and work, that’s no longer the dominant thinking. “It shook up so many ways of working. Everybody is much more open to the possibilities of digital,” Khedkar continued. “Pharma used to view more digital in sales promotion as a nice-to-have; maybe 25% were actually doing it. Now, a full 100% are doing it.”

As for ZS itself, Khedkar believes the organization is well-positioned for the change ahead. “At the end of my [first] term, I want to be able to say that the company has firmly embraced this vision of a different world,” he said. “We all have to believe that the journey is doable and that we are firmly marching toward our goals – that we’ve gotten past base camp, so to speak, on our way to the mountaintop.”