AstraZeneca’s prescription for IT-driven innovation
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AstraZeneca’s prescription for IT-driven innovation

Jim Mortleman — July 2014
AstraZeneca’s EMEA IT chief explains how technology is helping to transform the pharma giant’s culture, agility and competitiveness.

Anglo-Swedish pharmaceuticals group AstraZeneca’s rejection of a £69 billion ($117bn) takeover bid by US rival Pfizer in late May marked the end of one of the most closely fought acquisition battles of recent years. It was ultimately parried by AstraZeneca’s belief that it could create more innovation on its own than as part of a larger entity. And listening to Prashaant Huria, the company’s head of information systems for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, it’s clear the company takes the pursuit of innovation — and IT’s role in its enablement — extremely seriously. 

“Our competitive advantage revolves around finding better ways to do things,” he says. “If you fail to innovate and reinvent yourself as a company, you will have a short shelf life.”

Since the arrival of CEO Pascal Soriot at AstraZeneca in 2012, the company has been busy overhauling its strategy, vision, ambition and culture, outlines Huria. And a key part of the renewal has been about fostering a culture and IT-supported environment where innovative ideas can truly flourish (see Astra-Zeneca’s top tips for IT-supported innovation below).

Last year, the company brought together more than 50,000 employees from around the globe for an online ‘culture jam’, where anyone could submit or explore innovative ideas. “Lots of ideas, projects and policies came out of that exercise. It was an incredible way of interacting across the world, with direct engagement from the bottom to the top of the organization,” says “We’re doing another one in six months’ time, where we’ll also see which of the original ideas have been implemented successfully.”
Powering creativity

The increased drive to innovate has resulted in a number of successful projects where technology has been key, both in terms of improving AstraZeneca’s internal operations and in terms of developing novel products and services. For instance, IT has developed a new search application that joins up previously isolated silos of knowledge within the company in order to speed up research and development. It has also created the award-winning React system for real-time analysis of clinical trial data, which helps to identify any adverse effects of a drug at a much earlier stage during a trial.

“Technology is enabling us to develop brands that are ‘more than just a pill.’”

In terms of giving the business a real competitive edge, however, perhaps the most exciting innovations have been those that take advantage of increasingly ubiquitous smartphone technology to provide new and compelling products and services to patients and clinicians.

For instance, a Bluetooth-enabled inhaler for asthma sufferers knows when a patient has taken medication and allows people to monitor usage patterns via a smartphone app. “That data is uploaded to the cloud and can be reviewed by users, clinicians and even family members, alerting them if necessary. If it’s successful — which so far it is — we’ll use a similar concept across a lot of the other products in our portfolio,” said Huria.

Another example is an application developed to support acute coronary patients taking AstraZeneca’s antiplatelet drug Brilique (Brilinta in the US). Huria explained that many patients struggle to adhere to the prescription regime and necessary lifestyle changes, which can severely affect the drug’s success rate. So, in a bid to develop a brand that is ‘more than just a pill’ the company built iBrilique, a mobile phone solution that supports patients in their lifestyle changes, outlines Huria. Initial trials show use of the app dramatically improves the efficacy of the treatment.

In the future, Huria believes that the company’s pharma products will increasingly make use of similar combinations of chemistry and IT to deliver better results — both in clinical trials and when deployed more widely. “And that’s a win-win-win for patients, physicians and AstraZeneca,” he says.

AstraZeneca’s top tips for IT-supported innovation:

1. Encourage small experiments: “Make it safe to fail. Celebrate the successful ideas and encourage wide adoption.”

2. Speed, speed, speed: “Fail fast and succeed sooner. It’s better to go with an 80% solution in a month than to spend six months finessing it to 99%.”

3. Teams need explorers and exploiters: “Seek out both those people who are good at coming up with ideas, testing and experimenting, and those who can scale the successful innovations.”

4. Create opportunities and forums for employees to communicate across the business: “If you want to understand what’s needed, it’s important to get to know the people in the trenches.”

5. Run the process, don’t plan the outcomes: “Process should be planned, but outcome should not be. Put in place a structure and process for innovation and then let it run and see what happens.”

6. Partner with innovators: “Make time and space to network with lots of innovative organizations — small, medium and large. Tap into their energy and networks, then ask how it can make a difference to your company and team.”

• Prashaant Huria was speaking at the Ovum Industry Congress 2014 in London. (See other CIO/CTO keynotes from the 2014 event)
First published August 2014
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