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Clay Hausmann describes how Almirall is weeding out uncertainty to sow the seeds of data-driven digital transformation.
Almirall (Barcelona, Spain), a global biopharmaceutical company focused on skin health, is harvesting an enterprisewide digital transformation that’s rooted in an innovative incubator program called Almirall’s Digital Garden. The company’s Chief Digital Officer, Francesca Wuttke, created this Digital Garden program as the cornerstone for the company’s move to digital.
Already, the bounty is plentiful. In less than two years, Almirall’s digital accelerator program has graduated more than 70 employees and established partnerships with 10 startup companies. Almirall employee-mentors provide support and industry guidance to young startups while the startups work closely with Almirall to apply their digital innovations in new ways to solve pervasive pharma problems, such as efficiently creating platforms for engagement with healthcare professionals, providing digital therapeutics solutions to patients and offering telehealth support.
Wuttke seeks to inspire lasting change and says that can only happen if implemented little by little, day by day across the entire organization. The goal is to help Almirall overcome one of the biggest barriers to digital transformation: change management. With the Digital Garden, for instance, Wuttke inspires an entrepreneurial spirit and — over time — gently weeds out technology uncertainty for skeptics. Wuttke is igniting change by building confidence in digital solutions on the job in real life and encourages all employees to experiment with digital innovations without fear of failure. Gradually, this breeds familiarity with digital technologies and, thus, greater confidence in their use.
Wuttke’s end-to-end, transversal approach is another defining aspect of Almirall’s digital transformation strategy and prevents departmental siloes from emerging. Wuttke has thoughtfully recruited key digital innovation experts for leadership positions across every area of the company — from research to commercial. A regular cadence of digital leadership meetings and problem-solving sessions encourages cross-department collaboration for an integrated approach across the organization.
Almirall’s digital transformation initiative is rooted in advanced data analytics, which is an important focus of Wuttke’s digital office. She is working to create a data-driven, digital-first mindset and culture. “Data is literally the future for nearly every industry on the planet,” she says. “We are aiming to go beyond the pure digitization of processes — for example, converting a marketing brochure to a PDF and putting it on an iPad — and work with data in a meaningful way by leveraging data as an asset that generates valuable insights to grow the business. Advanced analytics technology such as AI and machine learning are an increasingly critical component.”
Here are five key takeaways learned from Almirall’s steady journey to data-driven digital transformation.
A decade or more ago, the person in charge of IT at a pharmaceutical company would often work in the basement with the mainframes while the chief marketing officer was on the top floor. Digital executives didn’t even exist in our space. However, more pharmaceutical companies are taking a cue from large retailers by putting digital at the center of their executive committees with new Chief Digital Officer (CDO) roles. Since 2017, Pfizer, Merck, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lily, and Sanofi — among other companies — named CDOs for the first time. The trend reflects the growing importance of digital in the life sciences industry, which encompasses a wide variety of initiatives from the application of AI and machine learning across drug discovery, development, and commercialization to remote measurement of real-word clinical data in real time and wholly digital therapeutics.
Almirall hired Francesca Wuttke as its first CDO in early 2019, and while some pharma companies are hiring CDOs from outside of the industry, Almirall sought to leverage Wuttke’s rare blend of life sciences expertise, digital know-how, and passion as a change-maker. Wuttke earned her Ph.D. in Pharmacology from Cornell, founded a biotech consultancy, and held global strategy roles at Novartis and as a digital health investor at MSD before arriving at Almirall.
“I like being at the vanguard of what’s new and disruptive,” explains Wuttke about why she accepted the position at Almirall. “How we integrate data and digital health — this is the intersection of what will disrupt the life sciences industry. Almirall’s decision to make digital an executive position speaks volumes about its commitment to digital transformation.”
She continued, “I wanted to bring an experiential process to the company and offer employees the unique opportunity to have an entrepreneurial work experience that inspired innovation. This became our Digital Garden.”
Wuttke established Almirall’s digital accelerator program, or Digital Garden, in 2020. The company called for proposals and selected a small cohort of startup technology companies, each with a focus on pharmaceutical processes, to serve as seeds in the Garden. This year, Almirall welcomed six more companies. Almirall pairs these startups with employee-mentors who provide pharmaceutical industry acumen with the aim to accelerate them through the next stage of growth, so they eventually graduate into venture capital funding.
Almirall selects mentors who are experienced and positioned to serve as internal digital champions for the organization, for instance, three general managers and the head of marketing were early mentors. The company has also partnered with Barcelona-based Esade University to formalize the program and all mentors who graduate from the Esade Digital Academy receive a professional education certificate. Employees are enthusiastic. Almirall has graduated 70 employees in less than 18 months since the program’s founding.
How does this benefit Almirall? How does it further its own digital transformation initiative?
“There are so many benefits — both tangible and intangible,” says Wuttke. “For starters, our employee-mentors get first-hand exposure to a startup tech’s innovative thinking, mindset, and energy — and they bring that back to their teams.”
Wuttke continues, “second, we have built-in partners to work with to provide new, tech-driven ways to solve specific pharmaceutical challenges. For instance, one of our partnerships inspired the use of AI and digital visualization to take detailed pictures and videos of patients’ skin continuously over a period without patients visiting a doctor’s office.”
In another example, Almirall worked closely with one of their earliest harvest startups, Haut.AI, to support in-house development of an innovative AI-powered patient support app. The app was designed to improve patients’ adherence to an Almirall treatment as well raise awareness about the disease.
Another Garden startup, Ancora.AI, supported Almirall’s market access team in data management and helped implement new tech tools for the company’s global market access organization. “Ancora.AI advised what types of reports our market access team could benefit from most to better manage the business. It proved a great example of how to apply AI technologies to solve business problems,” explains Wuttke.
“The development of digital tools that facilitate the work of health professionals is part of an unstoppable and much broader trend that a pharmaceutical company with a vision towards leadership in dermatology like ours must keep in mind,” says Wuttke. “The Digital Garden gives us a path.”
Almirall’s technology decisions fall under IT but the IT team works collaboratively with Wuttke’s team to align with the company’s overall digital strategy. Collectively, the organization embraces modern technology at scale so Almirall remains agile and delivers the best support to physicians and patients. The key is to steadily embrace new technology rather than shyly dancing around the edges, says Wuttke.
Almirall has adopted a cloud-based physician-facing platform called Almirall Med Cloud, which provides a centralized suite of services including Almirall Med Play, Almirall Med Live and Almirall Med Library. Fully integrated, the platform and set of applications enable coordinated omnichannel activities between the field force, medical team, marketing, and HCPs.
“Omnichannel is a marketing capability rather than a digital one,” explained Wuttke. “However, we are facilitating ways to populate the CRM system with more insightful data, and we are trialing an AI-driven dynamic targeting program in the U.S. with Aktana’s Contextual Intelligence Engine. We want to learn more about physicians so we can better tailor to their needs. We are planning a full rollout with Aktana across five brands in January 2022.”
Aktana will equip Almirall’s commercial teams with data-driven suggestions and insights, delivered in their daily workflow, to ensure every HCP interaction is not only highly relevant but also personalized to how they prefer to consume information. The system also leverages market, claims, and formulary data to ensure Almirall’s customer-facing teams have all the right information to better engage with customers.
Historically, life sciences companies have implemented technology within departmental silos that have prevented employees from leveraging knowledge across teams. From her first day, Wuttke knew that a digital transformation would not succeed if siloed in one organization or a digital office, so she deliberately set out to create a web of digital across the company with solutions seamlessly integrated.
“The mandate was for end-to-end digital transformation, so I don’t focus on one discrete area at a time,” Wuttke explains. “We built a leadership team of digital champions with a head of digital innovation in every department — commercial, R&D, manufacturing, as well as in data analytics. Our reach is transversal, but we attack problems one by one.”
Almirall’s heads of digital work closely together, solving problems collaboratively. They also serve as digital champions in their departments, encouraging teams to turn to digital first to solve their problems and creating a data mindset across the organization.
When asked whether she wanted to hire within the industry or from the outside, Wuttke says outright — “we looked outside of the life sciences industry to find out-of-the-box thinkers in data science and analytics. We are steeped in industry knowledge, so I recruited new talent in the areas we are light.”
With Wuttke leading their digital transformation, Almirall is taking a slow but steady approach — making incremental changes in small bursts rather than overwhelming the organization with sweeping change.
“Change management is one of the biggest barriers facing any pharma company seeking a digital transformation,” says Wuttke. “I am tackling this by easing our teams and culture into a new mindset one step at a time and by creating an environment where a “give it a try,” entrepreneurial spirit is encouraged and rewarded.”
But even as Wuttke promotes a step-by-step cadence to digital transformation, she believes that change management happens only when people can see positive proof that a new strategy works. For instance, Almirall is highly encouraged by its successful partnership with Happify Health, a leader in digital therapeutics, to develop evidence-supported digital therapeutic solutions that improve the lives of psoriasis patients based on cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology, and mindfulness. The CLARO platform is being rolled out across Spain, UK, Italy, and France. Almirall is hoping to help the estimated 30% of patients with moderate to severe psoriasis who suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
CLARO is a digital solution to help psoriasis patients improve their well-being by providing a meaningful, dynamic, and fun user experience. CLARO is powered by Happify’s clinically validated platform and delivered through the Almirall patient support program.
Wuttke adds, “We want to bring the benefits that digital therapeutics can have on treatments and overall wellbeing to patients. This partnership highlights our commitment and investment in this field and demonstrates how digital can directly impact patients’ lives.”
According to Wuttke, “If I do my job well, in five years, there shouldn’t be a Chief Digital Officer anymore because teams should be taking those initiatives on their own without being shepherded by me. Digital will just be part of the fabric of everything we make at Almirall. That is the goal.”
Clay Hausmann (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chief revenue officer at Aktana, where he oversees strategic business alliances, brand and marketing strategy and the global sales organization.
To hear more from Francesca Wuttke’s experience and Almirall’s novel digital transformation journey, including lessons learned, tune into Aktana’s podcast hosted by Clay Hausmann.