GSK CEO Walmsley to join Microsoft board as tech giant wades deeper into healthcare

Emma Walmsley
Microsoft is nominating GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley to its board of directors. (GSK)

GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley could soon have a new title: Microsoft board member. And it would be an appointment that’s potentially valuable for both companies’ endeavors into each other’s sectors.

The software giant has nominated Walmsley to its board of directors, and her appointment could be confirmed at the company’s annual shareholders meeting Dec. 4.

In a statement Thursday, John Thompson, Microsoft’s independent board chair, described Walmsley as “a valuable addition to the board” and “an accomplished business leader who led major advances in research and development at GSK and will bring her significant insights and global experience to Microsoft.”

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Walmsley doesn’t currently have roles at other corporations, according to GSK’s 2018 annual report. The only two external appointments she holds are co-chair of the Consumer, Retail and Life Sciences Council, an advisory group for the U.K. government, and honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

If Walmsley is ultimately elected, the appointment could be beneficial to both companies as GSK accelerates its digital transformation and as Microsoft wades deeper into healthcare.

Soon after she officially took the GSK CEO baton from Andrew Witty in 2017, Walmsley created the new position of chief digital and technology officer at the British drugmaker and tapped former Walmart chief information officer, Karenanne Terrell, for the job. Terrell’s job description includes developing digital, data and analytics strategy for drug R&D, a focus set by Walmsley and an element GSK’s board uses to review the firm’s performance.

RELATED: GSK digital chief strolls Lions Health for inspiration, partner meetups

In 2018, the company created a new London-based consumer healthcare digital innovation hub that brings together commercial and R&D functions to offer consumer-facing digital solutions. In a collaboration with Microsoft rival Google, GSK is using data to determine the right influencers for its brands and increase efficiency in its online marketing.

Microsoft has also been steadily increasing its presence in healthcare over the past few years, culminating in the creation of Microsoft Healthcare mid-2018, which is an upgrade of the company’s Healthcare NExT initiative launched in 2017. The department brings Microsoft’s data and software capabilities “to help healthcare providers, biotech companies and organizations around the world use artificial intelligence and the cloud to innovate,” corporate vice president of Microsoft Healthcare, Peter Lee, said in a blog post at the time.

In collaboration with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and with the help of DNAnexus, Microsoft helped create what was said to be the world’s largest public repository of pediatric cancer genomics data, hosted on the cloud. That platform provides analysis and visualization tools to help researchers in their drug development work.

That kind of large-scale genetics data are exactly what Walmsley’s GSK has been investing in. Back in late 2017, GSK expanded its genomic research partnership with UK Biobank by pouring in £40 million ($50 million). It aims to sequence genetic data from 500,000 volunteers to help speed drug R&D.

RELATED: GlaxoSmithKline makes $300M investment in 23andMe, forms 50-50 R&D pact

And in July 2018, the company made a $300 million equity investment in 23andMe as part of a bigger plan to utilize genotypic and phenotypic data to streamline clinical trial enrollment and drug target discovery. Walmsley, on GSK’s second-quarter 2018 call, dubbed the pact “one of the most significant milestones” for GSK.

Meanwhile, Microsoft in early 2018 inked a deal with fellow Seattle-based company Adaptive Biotechnologies. The pair is trying to develop blood-based diagnostics based on clues offered by the immune system.

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