Pharma's pandemic response could help attract tech talent, Novartis digital chief says

The COVID-19 pandemic changed consumer perceptions of the pharma industry, but it changed some professionals' minds, too. Almost three-fourths (73% ) of tech professionals say their opinion of the industry has improved during the pandemic, thanks to its response in the search for treatments and vaccines, according to a new Novartis study.

That’s considerably more positive than the general public’s 40% rise in perception of the pharma industry found by The Harris Poll. The survey also found that 86% believe the time has come for digital healthcare, and many of them are interested in taking part.

Novartis chief digital officer Bertrand Bodson talked to FiercePharma about the positive reputation swing—and what it means in the potential to attract highly sought-after tech talent while also building out current employees' growing tech interests.

“When you look at what’s happened over the past three or four months, health has taken center stage everywhere. Even pre-COVID, it was 15% GDP and an important industry in its own right, but the pandemic has made it center stage everywhere,” Bodson said.

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That attention has led to not only reputation improvement but also a willingness and preference by tech people to join the industry. In the survey, fielded among 2,500 people across five countries (U.S., U.K., Germany, China and India), 83% said they are very or somewhat likely to work in the industry.

The goal for Bodson, a tech veteran of consumer companies such as Amazon and EMI Music, is to leverage that interest to help add digital expertise across Novartis teams, from research and development to supply chain to sales and marketing. With COVID-19 as the catalyst, technology talent can be encouraged to join the healthcare and pharma industries.

Of course, that doesn’t mean internal talent is excluded. Digital education and training programs are popular with Novartis employees—and growing. Novartis set up a self-learning digital program about 18 months ago to get 100 hours of training for all employees. One specific data science and artificial intelligence course drew 30,000 employee sign-ups, Bodson said.

“We have incredible talent inside and we invest massively on that talent,” he said. “What I’ve discovered here at Novartis is a real sense of bigger purpose and also a natural curiosity and asking ‘how can I keep learning?’ ”

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One potential barrier, and an area that Novartis will work to mitigate, was the tech professionals’ self-professed doubt that surfaced in the research. Forty percent said they didn’t think they had enough industry knowledge to make the leap, while another 20% said they don’t feel qualified.