How big pharma and startups can learn from each other

Francesca Wuttke’s varied career has taken her from research roles to private equity and now to the role of chief digital officer at Almirall. She spoke with Paul Tunnah about her plans to embed a digital mindset across the company, and how Almirall hopes to encourage true collaboration with startups through its new ‘Digital Garden’ project.
You’ve been involved with both the science and the investment side of the industry – what has that taught you and how has it shaped your focus now?

My driving force has always been to accelerate drug development and drug discovery. When I was working on my thesis on HIV drug discovery, I realised it would likely be 20 years before something would come to market. I tend not to be the most patient person!

I went into private equity because I felt that when you can fund valuable products, you can often get them to patients sooner.

The way to accelerate benefit to patients changes over time as technology improves and innovation becomes more cutting edge. I’ve always looked for the more cutting-edge projects because, quite frankly, they’re just more intellectually stimulating for me. I like being on the vanguard where there are more questions than answers.

Obviously, digital is the current way to approach patients and improve their lives through patient-centric solutions. The democratisation and consumerisation of medicine, certainly in the US and increasingly in Europe, is causing patients to take greater control over their own healthcare. You can now have a prescribed software that’s a therapeutic via your phone. That’s pretty amazing to me.

How did Almirall’s Digital Garden come about?

I joined Almirall with the mandate to transform the entire enterprise end-to-end. That includes back-office process automation, AI, clinical trials solutions, and creating the data architecture to support advanced analytics and machine learning platforms.

The line through all of that is cultural transformation of the organisation. Almirall is a deeply innovative company by DNA, and this shift towards more of a digital mindset and outlook has certainly been well received by the teams and has been the genesis for the creation of the Digital Garden.

We wanted to bring innovation to our teams and give them a sense of how startups think and work differently, by creating a space where we’re teaching each other.

The startups will learn from in-house experts, and our colleagues here at the company will learn from the startups and bring back with them a slightly different way of thinking and working. The intent is that this will help spread that entrepreneurial spirit throughout the organisation.

We’re looking to have a shortlist of 10 startups, who we’ll invite to Frontiers Health. There we’ll be selecting the five that we’ll invite into the Digital Garden, which will be housed in the Barcelona Health Hub at the Sant Pau site.

We’ll be creating a bespoke curriculum for the startup, using a gap analysis to understand what they need. Then we will pair the right experts with the right startup so that they can provide mentorship and support to the community.

We’re also very interested in having the startups collaborate, co-create and share ideas. That’s why we want them all to be housed in the same space.

As you can see, this is a very different way to work with startups!

How is the Digital Garden different to other initiatives people have seen, especially from a mentorship and collaboration perspective? I feel that’s often the piece that’s forgotten because people think that technology on its own is going to solve problems.

That has been one of the many problems with a lot of the pharma accelerators that I’ve seen – many of them have been very buzzworthy but little has come from them, often because the KPIs and metrics have been based on operational success. And many of them are not of sufficient size or scale to really add to the bottom line for most companies.

We’re endeavouring to help grow the companies and graduate them into venture capital funding through hosting investor days.

We want to let them understand how pharma, as a stakeholder, works. They’ll also be able to use our partner hospitals in Barcelona as a testbed to pilot their solutions and services. Then once they’ve grown to a sufficient size and scale, there will be a chance for us to collaborate with them commercially.

Our vision is a bit longer-term than others, in terms of the operational value that the startup can bring. In the shorter-term we’re looking at what I hope is going to be a radical change in culture within the organisation.

A lot of companies are doing innovation initiatives. How would you position the USPs of Digital Garden?

We’re focused on solutions that can benefit patients with medical dermatological disorders as well as big data that could help us to understand our patients’ needs.

The biggest differentiator is the mentorship component. I’ve seen that lacking in many other accelerators. The idea is that we’re really going to embed our internal experts with the startups and help them along the way. Their objectives and their performance will be linked to the success of the startup.

We’re creating bespoke programmes both for the startups and for our employees, all of whom have an interest in learning more about digital, but also have the agility to take this on as part of their work. It’s not in addition to their current job, it will become part of their work with their manager’s approval and full buy-in. That level of dedication to the growth of the startups is a key USP for the Digital Garden.

It sounds like you’ve got support from the management team of Almirall for that longer-term transformation and vision over time.

Yes, absolutely. The management team is certainly backing this. Sitting on the management board, I have visibility across the whole organisation, and I’m able to see where digital can add value rather than just applying tech to problems, which I’m strongly opposed to.

What we were fearful of doing, as a management board, was throwing a lot of consultants at the problem. We don’t want to have really nice PowerPoints but nothing that people can actually execute and lead. We really want our team members to lead the change and experience an entrepreneurial spirit first-hand. Then they can take that back to their corners of the organisation and implement it in their own projects and programmes.

In terms of the type of startups you’re working with, are there particular stages of development for those you’re looking at?

We’re looking for companies that can benefit from our advice! If they’re already fully formed and have lots of employees, they probably don’t need us.

What would you say are the common pitfalls that digital health startups fall into?

When I was an investor, one of the most common things I came across was startups having really cool technology that wasn’t solving a problem for anyone.

The first question we always start out with in our internal teams is ‘What’s keeping you up at night?’ or ‘What’s the job to be done that you can only do with a digital solution?’

Likewise, the first question I always ask the startup is, ‘Are you solving a problem that exists in the industry or is it just something cool?’ Because very often, you’ll ask them about their market and they’ll give you the usual, ‘There are five million people with this, it will be helpful to treat 20%’. That’s not always the right approach. Is this something that people need? Are there other groups already doing this and are you different enough from them to survive?

Is there anything from beyond the pharma industry that has inspired you or you think we can emulate?

I think pharma has been a bit slow on the uptake, in part because it’s such a regulated industry and also because there’s a certain degree of patience within pharma because drug development takes so long. So I’m inspired by the agility and the experimentation with which the big tech giants operate.

I think some of that experimentation is what we’re trying to teach by providing, through the Digital Garden, a safe sandbox where you can try things and fail – hopefully in a reasonable and cost-effective way – and not doing pilots that lead to nothing. Pilots are rampant in the industry, but they can be really damaging to the startup ecosystem. I always encourage startups to contract for a much larger project, using the pilot as a gating mechanism to scale, which is how it’s done in most other industries except for pharma.

Similarly, it’s important to bring in people from outside the industry for roles such as data analytics – because when compliance says, ‘You can’t do that’, they can say, ‘Why not?’ Asking ourselves that question is really powerful, and we need to be doing it much more.

About the Interviewee

Francesca Domenech Wuttke, Ph.D. is the chief digital officer of Almirall. Dr Wuttke brings with her broad drug development and healthcare expertise in both the US and Europe, with over 20 years of clinical, commercial, strategic and transactional experience. She has worked with diverse organisations including startups, consulting, large and specialty pharma as well as academia. Most recently, she led European investments as managing director for the MSD Global Health Innovation Fund.

Previously Dr Wuttke led Almirall´s Corporate Development Strategy team to transact on both med device and pharma M&A opportunities with a new and targeted focus for the company. Before that, she worked at Novartis where she was responsible for two cell and gene therapy opportunities that were successfully brought into the organisation as well as managing the strategy and commercialisation for the existing portfolio of cell therapy assets.

About the author

Paul Tunnah

Dr Paul Tunnah founded pharmaphorum in 2009, which is a content and communications company offering industry leading publications ( and a strategic consultancy ( He is a recognised author, speaker and industry advisor on content marketing, communications and digital innovation, having worked with many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies and the broader ecosystem of healthcare organisations.

Connect with Dr Tunnah on Linkedin or email

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