Novartis scouts new tech partnerships to build lead on 'risk averse' pharma peers

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Novartis is looking to build out a network of tech partnerships that can help it bring down the cost of drug development and get better data into providers' hands.

SAN FRANCISCO—Last January, Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez warned that tech was an area where pharma would have to “pay real attention.” One year later, after doing just that, the company’s execs think it can be on the “leading edge” in the space.

Novartis, which already has big-time collaborations going with Qualcomm and Google, is currently scouting others that can help it build out a network of partnerships to attack issues like bringing down the cost of drug development and getting better data into the hands of patients and providers.

“We want companies that have a good appreciation of what it takes to work with regulators, to really have data that can be meaningful to regulators as well as to payers,” Novartis chief medical officer Vas Narasimhan told FiercePharma in an interview during the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.

The Swiss pharma giant is also looking for platform-based companies; Qualcomm, for example, is building a platform to allow various types of digital sensors and other technologies to link into it, and Novartis is interested in others that are working in that vein.

“We’re technology agnostic because we’re really about trying to get the data and insights about patients and about our products, and so we really want to build platform capabilities that give us a lot of flexibility,” Narasimhan said.

The way he sees it, Novartis’ peers aren’t quite at that level yet. “My impression in general is the rest of the industry is a little more risk averse,” when it comes to tech, he said.

But that’s not to say they haven’t been active in the tech space, particularly in the year since Jimenez delivered his warning. Sanofi, for one, in September joined forces with Google’s life sciences arm, Verily, on a new diabetes-focused venture, Onduo. And a handful of others—including AstraZeneca and Boehringer Ingelheim—have inked “smart inhaler” deals that help collect COPD data during trials.

Still, Novartis—which has 20 trials in the works involving sensors—believes it’s ahead in the game, and the Basel-based drugmaker is just fine with that.

“We’re okay in this space to be leading the industry and having others follow because we think we are obviously one of the largest investors in R&D in the world,” Narasimhan said. “I think this is an opportunity for us to show our leadership.”