Preparing for the digital journey

Fresh off his appearance at this year’s Frontiers Health conference, we sat down with Sandoz’s head of digital Andre Heeg to get his views on where digital pharma is heading and how companies can make sure they always keep the patient in mind during this transformation

Are there any particular areas of pharma that you think are lacking in digital adoption? Why might it be important to harness digital in these areas?

We are definitely in the middle of a pharma digital revolution. While we are not ready to claim victory – YET – digital is already making our business way smarter and more focused than we’ve ever been previously.

There are five areas where digital can and is making a significant impact. These are:
1. Predictive forecasting and planning
2. Waste out – automation and simplification
3. Data visualisation and insights
4. Digitised marketing and selling
5. Culture change and training

We are collecting reams of data every day. Visualising and transforming the data into usable information – that makes a difference for how quickly patients get their medicines and at what cost. For our over-burdened healthcare systems every minute counts.

As a generics company Sandoz obviously has a focus on getting patients access to medicines – how do you think digital can help you facilitate that?

We are looking across our business and applying a digital mindset across every part of the value chain including how we innovate, operate, create medicines, and sell. It is not just about collecting data, but about taking that data and turning it into usable information that helps us get smarter, faster – taking waste out of the system and speeding up how quickly we are able to get medicines to customers, and from customers to patients.

Is it safe to say that pharma is still behind the times in terms of digital adoption compared to other sectors? Or have things improved in recent years?

With great examples coming from other industries – for example Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase creating Haven Healthcare to provide better healthcare management to their employees – it can seem like traditional healthcare companies are lagging behind in terms of digitalisation.

Let me reassure you though, healthcare data and digital transformation is really a thing.

Data is collected on a daily basis, giving insights on everything from markets, patients, and our own processes to pipeline – both the molecules we are developing and the products we want to put on the market.  And across Novartis, we continue to integrate artificial intelligence, predictive decision-making, analytics and automation to improve internal processes and make them as efficient, and cutting-edge as possible.

Do you envision pharma being overtaken by big digital companies like Amazon/Google in the healthcare sector if they don’t embrace change? If so, is there anything they can do to avoid this?

We are a learning versus knowing culture. It is important to look at Amazon and Google and drool a bit to see how they have harnessed data in an incredibly powerful way.

Great examples across all industries help to fuel our own desire to do better. We are exploring partnerships with younger companies or start-ups, academia, and think tanks in order to get exposure to new ideas and learn. Last year, we entered a partnership with UnternehmerTUM and their applied AI team, which is a think tank associated with the Technical University of Munich. The partnership was about advancing our thinking and working on applying artificial intelligence to solve business challenges. Most recently, we also hacked five of our employee-voted business challenges during the weekend of November 8-10 with leading minds in digital along with our Sandoz employees. Agile teams developed prototypes and most importantly we learnt and flexed our ability to solve big problems quickly and efficiently.

We are looking to join forces with pioneers in this field in order to digitise everything from how we innovate, operate, create medicines, and sell.

Are there any digital pitfalls pharma companies can easily fall into? How do you avoid them?

Before joining Sandoz, I asked myself a lot of really important questions. Things like: Is the company ready for this type of digital change? What are the expectations of the digital agenda? How do you get stuff done in such a big company? Will I be held up in too many unnecessary or cumbersome processes? I was particularly worried about that last question.

After joining, I learned that sometimes within a large matrixed company, you do get held up by the size of the beast. But, what makes the difference for me is the sheer number of really high quality people who I get to work with every day. It is incredible. They taught me how to navigate, ways to get things done working within the system, how to collaborate, and join forces. That is something I already take away now as a big win.

Do you think there will come a point when pharma stops referring to ‘digital’ as a separate entity and has it naturally embedded in every part of the business? How close are we to that?

I have set a personal challenge to get Sandoz – and the industry – to a place where we no longer need a digital function, because digital is so fundamental to everything we do that everybody just does it.

We have to break out of dated ways of thinking and organising ourselves, and start doing things in a totally new, “connected” way. This digital mindset has to drive everything from how we innovate, operate, create medicines, and sell.

And that includes our attitudes to partnering and collaboration, because the “we-know-best” approach to innovation just won’t cut it in the new convergent world. We are moving more toward a space where our traditional capabilities need to complement others’ high-tech know-how, and vice versa.

What’s an unexpected or little-known aspect of digital healthcare you’re interested in seeing develop?

There is a lot of start-up DNA within Sandoz. It would be interesting to apply this pioneering mindset to data responsibility. With data comes a lot of opportunity but also a very big responsibility. We all know that there is a lot of value in mining data and making smart algorithms to drive decisions. On the other hand, you have the need and the requirement for data privacy – no one wants their data to be exposed. It is not 100% clear how this will play out. What we know for certain is that we will have to work with regulators and all involved parties. But what is very clear is that we have to keep patients’ interests in mind in order not to compromise any aspects of their privacy.

About the interviewee

Andre is an experienced start-up executive, business and sales manager, leader, and strategist. He is an expert in inside and field sales management, pharmaceutical and medical products marketing and sales, commercial strategy planning, and healthcare topics. Andre joined Sandoz in June 2018 from his role as CSO at Thermondo GmbH, an integrated energy company.

About the author


George Underwood is a senior member of the pharmaphorum editorial team, having previously worked at PharmaTimes and prior to this at Pharmafocus. He is a trained journalist, with a degree from Bournemouth University and current specialisms that include R&D, digital and M&A.

About Sandoz

Sandoz, a Novartis division, is a global leader in generic pharmaceuticals and biosimilars. Our purpose is to pioneer access for patients by developing and commercialising novel, affordable approaches that address unmet medical need. Our ambition is to be the world’s leading and most valued generics company. Our broad portfolio of high-quality medicines, covering all major therapeutic areas, accounted for 2018 sales of $9.9 billion. Sandoz is headquartered in Holzkirchen, in Germany’s Greater Munich area.


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