'We're light years ahead of where we were': Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan told us how the Swiss drug giant is using AI for everything from evaluating managers to predicting its financials

'We're light years ahead of where we were': Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan told us how the Swiss drug giant is using AI for everything from evaluating managers to predicting its financials

Vas Narasimhan Novartis CEO tech AI


Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan has talked up the potential of tech since he took the position early last year.

  • Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan has been a prominent advocate for using tech like AI in the pharmaceutical industry.
  • The drugmaker has made the biggest inroads with increasing the use of technology in its operations, because tech "can really help you make better decisions," he said.
  • Tech is being used at Novartis to help run research trials and in hopes of finding new drugs, but also in areas like sales, finance, and measuring its corporate culture, Narasimhan told Business Insider.
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Since taking the reins at Novartis early last year, CEO Vas Narasimhan has been a prominent voice on the potential for technology in the pharmaceutical industry.

At Novartis, he's walking the walk.

The Swiss drug giant is using tech like AI and data science for tasks like finding new drugs as well as to help run sales and finance operations, Narasimhan told Business Insider during a phone interview last week.

"If you think back to where we were January of last year to where we are now, I think we're light years ahead of where we were," he said.


Novartis has seen the most traction in "accelerating and improving our operations, because we know that these types of technologies, data science, predictive analytics-slash-artificial intelligence, can really help you make better decisions."

Before starting as CEO in February 2018, Narasimhan led Novartis's global drug development and served as chief medical officer. A Harvard-trained physician, the 43-year-old Narasimhan is the youngest CEO of a major drugmaker.

In his roughly 18 months of leadership, Novartis has done major acquisitions, like of gene-therapy biotech AveXis, while letting go of less-important businesses like the eye-care unit Alcon. All told, the shift has included more than $60 billion in deals. Novartis stock has climbed about 26% this year, to a market value of nearly $240 billion.

Read more: Pharma giant Novartis has been on a tear. CEO Vas Narasimhan told us how wearing jeans to work is helping transform the Swiss company.

Using tech like AI to run finance operations and monitor company culture

Researching promising new drugs is crucial work for a pharmaceutical company like Novartis.


At a big command center run by the company, those efforts get a boost from algorithms, which in real-time check on factors like patient enrollment and research costs. Algorithms also monitor whether any changes are needed to keep research on track.

The drugmaker is replicating that central command center model in its manufacturing operations and among its employees "for real-time measures on the culture," Narasimhan said.

The Swiss drugmaker employs more than 100,000 people worldwide, including 15,000 managers, and has employed data and technology to track how they're doing. A system called Glint, owned by Microsoft's LinkedIn, tracks the feedback Novartis employees have for their managers.

Novartis also asks its employees questions about how it's doing each quarter, comparing those metrics to average large companies, as well as the 25 best places to work.

AI could take that and email metadata to the next level, "to really see what's going on within the company," measuring such things as collaboration and energy, Narasimhan said.


At Novartis, more ambitious tech projects are on the horizon

The tech is also being deployed among 10,000 Novartis sales reps, who by the end of the year will be using an AI tool that determines how they should spend each workday in order to be most effective.

And the drugmaker is moving into "AI-based finance," using systems that track its global sales and cost data to start predicting business metrics like free cash flow and future sales.

"It sounds like a small thing. It's actually a huge thing for a company of our size, to have that kind of capability," Narasimhan said.

Even more ambitious projects are on the horizon.

A long-running effort termed "Data 42" aims to mine Novartis research data for paths to new drugs. The current focus at Novartis is building "data lakes" that data scientists can then analyze, something it's brought in data scientists from Google, IBM and Amazon to help with. The clinical data project will then become a model of how to clean up and structure data in other parts of Novartis, too, Narasimhan said.


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