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From Pills to Data


25 April 2017

J-P De Clerck

Blogs by author: J-P De Clerck, Digital Consultant


Herman De Prins, CIO at biopharma company UCB, explains why data analytics and artificial intelligence are the key to UCB’s future.

The pharmaceutical industry has its eyes firmly on a digital future.  For example, research data is no longer confined to clinical trial data but increasingly includes ‘real world’ patient data captured by clinicians, data generated by wearable sensors, and even genetic data. Future therapeutic ‘solutions’ will likely be more than pills alone and include information, sensors, monitoring and real-Herman De Prins, CIO, UCB time guidance. In this interview, Herman De Prins, CIO at UCB, talks about the increasing importance of analytics and artificial intelligence, and how he is preparing his IT department for this data-driven future.

Can you tell us about your role at UCB?

As CIO, I am responsible for all IT management at UCB, covering IT infrastructure and approximately 800 applications. I have been in this role for 7 years now.                                


Herman De Prins, CIO, UCB

I assume that you have seen the IT landscape change significantly in those years?

Indeed. Today we are very focused on analytics and artificial intelligence. A few years back the key themes were cloud, mobile and social media. Perhaps a more fundamental shift is that everything is digital these days. Every decision is a digital decision and it concerns everyone in the company.  Seven years ago, digital was something the IT department did; it was an extra layer, an addendum.

What are UCB’s business goals and how is ICT supporting the business? Is there anything unique about your industry that has implications for IT?

UCB is a biopharmaceutical company specialised in neurology and immunology. What is unique about our industry, about UCB, is that we spend 25% of our revenues on R&D. We have a particularly strong culture of innovation, also within our own IT division.

As a business, we have three key priorities. Firstly, we want to grow and we do so mainly by making sure that patients with particular needs have access to the right solution; secondly, we are continuously developing new patient solutions and thirdly we want to collaborate with all stakeholders to create as much patient value as possible. Healthcare is an increasingly complex ecosystem involving different stakeholders who all have their own agendas. We have learned that the only way to create value is to place the patient at the centre of everything we do.

Our role at IT is to help achieve these objectives with new technologies. For example, we are building new communication and collaboration capabilities to engage patients more effectively.  IoT, wearable sensors and analytics all play a key role in this regard.  Analytics is particularly relevant at present because it can be applied across our entire value chain. For example, to maximise patient value it is important that we look for patient populations that respond best to specific medications. This is something we have always done in clinical trials but today we have access to so much more real-world data and public data that we can analyse. For example, hospital medical records, data collected by insurance companies and publicly available research data can all help us gain a better understanding of the efficacy of medications among specific patient populations. Looking ahead, we will start incorporating genetic data, which will exponentially increase the volume of data being analysed.

What are your priorities at present?

We have talked about analytics and artificial intelligence which are obviously key priorities at present. Text analytics, for example, can generate new insights from a variety of data sources that in the past had little analytical value. In seconds we can process thousands of documents, both internal data but also public data like research articles. In addition to the generation of insight and knowledge, analytics will also improve the efficiency of our business processes. As opposed to outsourcing basic reporting tasks to India, for example, we can automate those processes using algorithms that are continuously improved using Machine Learning.

Security is another key priority. In today’s connected world where masses of data are generated in real-time, you must design security into your products. Building walls around your products on an ad hoc basis is no longer good enough. Security is all about building trust as a differentiator. In the future, this will only become more important. We will soon reach a stage where there is so much intelligence in products that people will not be able to detect the difference between human and machine intelligence. In that context, trust will be the key to whether you accept that technology or not. Hence it is crucial that we build trust by design.

A third priority is connected patients. While it is clear that this will be important in the future, we have not yet found the ultimate recipe. We use such technology in clinical trials, but ultimately the real value will be in improved care. For example, clinicians could make sure that therapy is complied with and intervene quickly if anything goes wrong. The key obstacles at present include the technology itself – there are few clinical grade sensors available – and perhaps more importantly, the business model. It is not clear at this point which stakeholders have an incentive to do anything with patient data – and who will carry the liability if anything goes wrong. Pharmaceutical companies also have all sorts of restrictions in how they can communicate with patients. The regulatory environment clearly has not yet adapted to the digital world.

Do you still see important shifts in the role of the CIO?

Yes, the role of the CIO and IT in general is still changing. Obviously some aspects of our work do not change much. For example, we still deliver 250 projects per year, responding to specific questions from the business. The most interesting trend, however, is that we spend a lot more time coming up with solutions where the need may not have been properly articulated by the business.

We have to deal with far more uncertainty and ambiguity in the market today, which demands an alternative approach. We cannot wait for the business to come up with specific needs around connected patients and analytics. We have to be far more proactive and start experimenting right now with the multitude of products in the market and where necessary start developing products ourselves in short development cycles. Basically, we are thinking more in terms of products instead of projects.

It sounds like you are managing a startup.

Indeed, we are working more like a startup. For example, we are using Sprints to develop Minimal Viable Products.  Our applications around analytics are being built in this way. We start with specific hypotheses and then take ideas through rapid prototyping and testing to a variety of use cases.

In the last five years, I would estimate that 75% of the roles in our IT department have fundamentally changed or are entirely new roles. Obviously we still have traditional projects-based activities but we now also have teams who do pure experimentation. For example, around analytics these teams only conduct ideation and prototyping until they have a promising Minimal Viable Product, after which it is transferred to other teams.

A second key trend is that we are doing a lot more insourcing, especially around the newer core technologies. The older technologies are outsourced but analytics, for example, is kept in-house.

What is your toughest challenge? What keeps you up at night?

The people aspects of the job. Over the past seven years, technology has evolved at an exponential rate. The question is: can your people follow? As a CIO, you have to make sure that your people understand these new technologies. This was always important but it is more important today. If you work in IT and do not understand Machine Learning, then you have a problem. As an IT professional, you have to understand the potential application and added-value of Machine Learning in your business. You need to be able to assess these things and make decisions. That is our role. And that is why we are investing so much in people development. We have set up our own programmes where we dive deep in topics like analytics and explore what it could mean for the business. Then we follow that up with Sprints. In other words, our education is very hands-on and goes beyond the learning of purely technical skills.

To conclude, what do you expect from your suppliers?

First and foremost: execution. In the past, we expected innovation from our suppliers but today I am more ambivalent about this. There is lots of very interesting, inexpensive technology available on the market today, but execution remains a key challenge. The IT environment is becoming increasingly complex while at the same time there is less room for failure. Hence execution is crucially important.