CEO Paul Hudson's turning 'clear eyes' on Sanofi—and hinting at changes ahead

PARIS—Sanofi’s newly installed CEO Paul Hudson asked journalists to turn an objective eye on the company—and, presumably, him—as he tunes up strategy, sets priorities and generally figures out what the French drugmaker ought to do next.

He’s demanding the same from himself—and that, he freely acknowledged at a Sanofi headquarters event Tuesday, could lead to some big changes.

Hudson, who joined Sanofi from Novartis early last month, has been on what he calls a “listening tour,” site to site, country to country. He’s spent days in conference rooms digging into the company’s pipeline with Sanofi scientists, and in one case, stumbled across a rendition of individual immune cells that might just lead to new drug targets down the line.

The objective: Formulate a strategy—and plans for carrying it out—that he can articulate to investors at a special event in December, only a couple of months away.

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Sacred cows won’t escape scrutiny. Asked about the company’s diabetes portfolio, Hudson said it’s a huge and growing problem, both for public health and healthcare costs, and Sanofi and its insulins will be fighting it. Next-gen, non-insulin treatments, though? The company’s recent bailing on its deal with Lexicon Pharmaceuticals, centered on an SGLT1/2 drug that tanked at the FDA, offers one clue.

“Do we have what it takes to win in diabetes?” Hudson asked rhetorically. “Do we have differentiated science? What does success look like and how do we get there? And is that acceptable?”

The company’s not going to back away from insulins or from the epidemic itself, Hudson emphasized, “but we have to be objective about how we can compete.”

That’s essentially Hudson’s message across all of Sanofi. After all, the company and investors should expect a new CEO to “look with clear eyes” at where it’s spending money and whether that investment fits its priorities. And when it comes to R&D, that means focusing on science that can “change the practice of medicine,” he said, with new treatments that are “first-in-class and preferably best in class.”

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And to hear Hudson speak Tuesday, aiming that high will leave some, perhaps many, of Sanofi’s current programs on the cutting-room floor. “Whistle through our pipeline,” he said, and you’ll come across some striking assets, such as the company’s CD38 cancer drug. “There are moments,” he said, where one can find something “unique” that fits his practice-changing ambition.

That’s when he mentioned the Genzyme scientist with the AI that can dig deep into a single immune cell. “Even John Reed is excited,” Hudson said, referring to the company’s R&D chief.

That sort of R&D prioritizing is only to be expected when a new CEO joins a Big Pharma, though. Another of Hudson’s top tasks—as the board noted in announcing he’d take the job—is pushing Sanofi’s digital capabilities far, far ahead of where they are now. And in that arena, Hudson will have to pull off some as-yet-unknown tasks.

Pharma’s a dinosaur, digitally, partly because it’s so heavily regulated, partly because there’s no “consumer pull” forcing the industry to overhaul itself in as extreme a way as, say, the airline industry did in moving all the way from booking flights in-person to booking via smartphone app.

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The trend is for healthcare companies to strike big partnerships with tech giants, Hudson said, as Sanofi itself has done with Google’s health-focused operation, Verily, and Hudson’s former employer struck up with Microsoft as of Tuesday. “You have to do it,” Hudson said. “It’s great to develop digital externally, but what about being a digital company?”

What he’d like to see at Sanofi is people making “split-second decisions” based on real-time data and analytics, and not just in R&D, but all over the company.

Sanofi’s tech revolution, of course, has to face the patient, too. That means digital therapeutics—“can we heal someone with zeros and ones?” Hudson asked—and whatever one might now call the “beyond-the-pill” equation of drug-plus-digital support equals better outcomes for patients. “That’s a frontier we must also break,” he said.

Those are some big ideas, and it’s Hudson’s job now to sort them all out. Just over two months to go—and the clock is ticking.