Novo Nordisk Home-Grows Group To Digitalize Early Clinical Research

By Deborah Borfitz 

June 13, 2023 | Novo Nordisk launched a digital science and innovation group early in 2022 with the intention of digitalizing clinical research activities, mirroring the way the commercial side of the house has been operating for years. It’s a familiar story among big-pharma companies looking to achieve huge leaps in drug discovery. 

The difference here is that Novo Nordisk has embedded the group within the research organization rather than created a separate product or short-lived initiative, according to Adama Ibrahim, vice president of digital strategy and change management. The group serves the entire portfolio of research and early development projects, including the diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular, kidney, and sickle cell disease areas. 

Editor’s Note: Adama Ibrahim will be presenting on data-driven decision-making in clinical research at the Summit for Clinical Ops Executives (SCOPE) Europe being held Oct. 17-18 in Barcelona. 

The lofty vision is to modernize early research making the best use of human and machine capabilities, she says, and early wins suggest improved speed, lower cost, and a better patient experience are among the measures that move in a positive direction. Ibrahim is hopeful that Novo Nordisk’s digitalization approach will inspire other companies that have not yet taken their first “giant leap” with technology to do so with confidence. 

At Novo Nordisk, digital research technologies (both hardware and software) are being optimized by an internal group of more than 200 experts across various disease, science, technology, and business areas, Ibrahim says. And that number could easily double over time.  

External partners will be brought in to complement capabilities of the homegrown group with any needed specialty expertise, she adds. Some of the role profiles (aka job descriptions) are new to pharma, so the positions will be filled by talent found in the IT space and startup world, and even the gaming industry. 

The “perfect scenario” is variably to combine scientific and technical skills into a single role profile or, perhaps more likely, uptraining new hires to give them the missing capabilities, says Ibrahim. Finding the right candidates is highly competitive and the pool of available resources is geographically based. 

Change Management 

Getting a large group to work together is never easy, and the growing pains of Novo Nordisk’s digital science and innovation group will be no different, says Ibrahim. “Having said that, we have the right mix of old and new.” The key challenge, and focus, is change management since the introduction of digitalization practices requires the adoption of many new processes and roles. 

As described on the careers page of the corporate website, the digital science and innovation group participates in drug discovery projects across the value chain starting in the early development phase and in partnership with the internal IT organization to ensure access to the most advanced technology platforms and tools. Sought-after team members include automation engineers, bioinformaticians, computational biologists, data engineers, machine learning scientists, and scientific software developers. 

For the group to work in a sustainable way, Ibrahim says, the benefits of the pioneering changes being instituted at the company must be mappable to the individual level. In this way, changes to ways of working are not extra steps to avoid but rather “a necessity for every individual to succeed.” 

The motivation to embrace the new will be like the sentiment of staff skeptical about robotics and other sophisticated technologies such as automated liquid handling and diagnostic systems in the lab, she continues. In that case, innovation is intended to eliminate untold hours of data-collection time and deliver a degree of accuracy “a human could hardly imagine.” Removing the burden of manual processes on scientists can accelerate the speed at which they perform these types of experimentations to “generate more data and insights... [and] come closer and closer to developing new targets.” 

Digital technology experts are now working side by side with scientists who understand when solutions matter and can be introduced, says Ibrahim. Strategic imperatives will determine which types of solutions get prioritized for implementation. 

The digital maturity level of a particular technology will also need to be factored into the equation. In some cases, Ibrahim says, Novo Nordisk may want to co-create with innovators and academia “but ultimately we want to apply things that we know work.” 

As one of the advisors for ClinEco, the new global clinical trials ecosystem and marketplace recently launched by Cambridge Healthtech Institute, Ibrahim says she has been encouraging external partnership teams to register and build out their profiles with all their relevant capabilities to make themselves findable to buyers in the life science industry. 

Landscape View 

Based on personal experience, Ibrahim shares, the tendency of life science companies has been to start and then stall or discontinue a digital initiative or keep it at a smaller scale. It has often been a one-off project that endures only if business is good; otherwise, the level of investment wanes. 

Companies understandably can’t overinvest when digitalizing research activities for the first time “in case [they] get things wrong,” she continues. “Our approach is uniquely different because we’ve taken as much learning as we can and created a living organization that sits within the research team, and... has the structures in place to help us to partner closely and bring value that not only benefits research but also downstream departments and functions.” 

As Ibrahim describes it, Novo Nordisk is peering through its business lens with a full landscape view of technology as well as how data can be organized, and partnerships can be built. The goal is the discovery and development of better drugs faster than ever before based on laboratory automation, a strong data foundation, and state-of-the-art data science.