AI and machine learning accelerate tasks that were done manually and where the human factor was a limiting one
Jean-Christophe Tellier, CEO, UCB
UCB aggressively embarked on its digital transition journey in 2021, declaring in a corporate video that its digital business transformation would “connect our teams, and create a culture of collaboration” and that the company would become “more efficient, smarter, and deliver better patient care” through the incorporation of digital tools.
In an interview during the FT Global Pharma and Biotech Summit, CEO Jean-Christophe Tellier discussed the motivation behind incorporating digital processes and tools, the organisational changes that were required to fully bring them onboard, and the strides the company has made on its digital journey through some unique partnerships.
One of the main motivators for UCB in adapting digital solutions was efficiency, Tellier explained. “We need to be much stronger in building scientific hypotheses and proving them,” he claimed. “For a mid-sized pharma company [like UCB], the strategy by definition is focusing on innovation. If we want the company to be successful in the long run, we need to create an environment where we can see things that others are not seeing, create new hypothesis, and test them.”
According to Tellier, the company has effectively increased productivity through the adoption of new drug discovery technologies. “We can do in one week what we were doing in three months.”
Organisational and Cultural Changes
Digital transformation does not happen on its own and as Tellier emphasised, it needs to be accompanied by cultural and organisational changes to support it. Breaking down silos, UCB’s CEO claimed, is fundamental. “The first thing is to try and create a network of people who are not working together because they belong to a certain department, or because they live in a certain geography, but for a specific project you want to test, these are the people that need to work together.”
Before its transformation, UCB had a siloed approach and was divided into three fundamental hubs: epilepsy, biotech and immunology, and gene therapy. “We have changed that recently and built the ability for all of these hubs to work together and create certain networks organised around projects.”
The company took this approach for the first time when it acquired Element Genomics, a US-based biotech UCB bought in 2018 for USD 30 million. “Instead of internalising the company, we kept them where they were in North Carolina,” he affirmed. “It was the first experience that proved that you don’t need to be in the same geography or in the same labs to collaborate. And that has created a snowball effect within the organisation.”
Other factors Tellier underlined as contributing to the success of digital transformation were creating an environment where people can learn through experience, and leadership. “Leadership is not about mentoring or teaching anymore. It’s much more about creating the conditions for the different people who need to work together to be at their best.”
As a part of its digital efforts, UCB has recently become a member of the OpenFold Artificial Intelligence (AI) Research Consortium with the aim of enhancing its digital molecular design using deep learning. “OpenFold is a first step,” said Tellier. “AI and machine learning accelerate tasks that were done manually and where the human factor was a limiting one. By allowing a machine to do all of this [basic drug target discovery work] on your behalf, means you are doing this better, faster and cheaper.”
UCB is also investigating new avenues for drug discovery through an ongoing partnership with Microsoft, leveraging Microsoft’s computational services, cloud, and artificial intelligence (AI) to accelerate drug discovery and development processes. In addition, the company has partnered with Stanford Medicine to jointly develop solutions that combine clinical and real-world data to deliver better patient outcomes. “What we wanted to explore was how we could use digital tools to better understand patients’ phenotypes and how we could connect these to science,” said Tellier.
The initial focus of the Stanford collaboration is on Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS), an immunological skin disease. “We have a potential treatment for this condition, but we don’t know a lot about these patients.” Through digital phenotyping, UCB will be able to get a better picture of the patients living with the disease. “In a sense the progress of technology helps us move from an average to the individual patient, understanding what makes patients different from each other to create a more precise treatment for each of them.”
In this respect, for Tellier, digital transformation should always lead back to the patient and UCB “starts with the patient in everything we do.”