Stop and plan it out: Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson offers up advice for digitally ambitious pharmas

Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson
Paul Hudson started as Sanofi's CEO in September. (Sanofi)

Digital change may have come late to pharma, but suddenly, it's all the rage. That doesn't mean drugmakers should plunge right into the next trendy tech, though, Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson says.

His advice? “Stop the clock” to carefully review digital priorities, Hudson wrote in a Fortune op-ed. Rather than pursue every digital prospect that comes along, the industry should “pause” and formulate its plan.

At Sanofi, where he took the helm last fall, Hudson has done just that—and quite publicly. He hit pause on a partnership with Google's Verily business, dubbed Onduo, announced with great fanfare in 2016. The drugmaker will keep supporting the venture financially, but won't be directly involved in operations.

That's just one digital step Hudson is expected to take at the French drugmaker. He's been a champion of digital at multiple pharma companies; as a Novartis exec, for example, Hudson previously told FiercePharma that company enlisted an AI program to help salespeople in the field. 

And at an event one month into his tenure at Sanofi, Hudson focused on his digital ambitions. It's "great to develop digital externally, but what about being a digital company?" he asked rhetorically about pharma's tech partnerships that have made so many headlines in recent months.

Hudson wants to get Sanofi to a place where employees throughout the company make “split-second decisions” that are informed by data and analytics. And the company isn't overlooking digital therapeutics, either. Sanofi highlighted technology as one area of focus for its new helmsman when it brought him on board. 

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

Echoing his ambitions for companywide data and analytics at Sanofi, Hudson wrote in Fortune that pharma needs to “raise the technology quotient" by making digital skills a priority “throughout the entire workforce—from the lab to the factory floor to the executive office."

The industry needs to abandon its "decades-old ways of working" in favor of "cultures that encourage experimentation and accept and learn from failure," he wrote. For example, in an R&D lab the helmsman recently visited, a robot handles the time-consuming task of processing proteins—200 proteins at the same time, around the clock. That allows scientists to focus on more complex tasks, he wrote.

Last, Hudson stressed the importance of avoiding “superficial intelligence.” He said pharma companies shouldn’t jump right into the next trendy technology, but carefully consider which new technologies can benefit their operations.  

The pharma industry lags other sectors in its digital embrace, but that's been changing. Several big pharma companies have hired digital execs in recent years with aims to bolster their manufacturing, R&D, sales and marketing and more.

RELATED: How will Sanofi save €2B? Chopping support staff and 'smart' purchasing, for 2 

Meanwhile, Hudson recently outlined his vision for Sanofi, digital and beyond. The drugmaker will discontinue diabetes and cardiovascular R&D and prioritizing growth products such as its immunology med Dupixent and vaccines. Further, the company has six "potentially transformative" pipeline therapies in hemophilia, RSV, cancer and more, execs said.  

The drugmaker also aims to save €2 billion by cutting support staff, tightening manufacturing budgets, spending smarter in purchasing and other measures. Technology is part of that: The company has ratcheted back travel spending by hosting more meetings online, and is saving in training through an e-learning platform.