Interview with Francesca Wuttke
Francesca Wuttke is the Chief Digital Officer at Almirall. Francesca spoke to us about using innovation to improve treatment for patients, the digital transformation at Almirall, and the evolution of her long-standing career.
Our patients stand to gain the most from all of our activities within pharma
How has your career evolved, from undertaking work and research in HIV and AIDS to your work in business development, to your current position in the pharmaceutical industry?
The red line across everything that I have done in my career, whether it was private equity, consulting, early- and late-stage development, and now digital, was to bring innovation to patients as quickly as possible. That was true of my initial research days, about 25 years ago, in the HIV and AIDS space where I was managing clinical trials. This drew me into basic science and research and my PhD thesis was on using cell therapy approaches in HIV. I then switched gears and worked on accelerating the development of innovative biotech opportunities through private equity investment. After that, I went back to academia to create spinouts and partnerships based on the technology being developed by the scientists and researchers. After a few years of starting and running a biopharma consultancy, I went to pharma. I initially worked on the development side, then later, on commercial strategy around a portfolio of cell and gene therapy programs at Novartis. From there, I went to Merck’s Global Health Innovation Fund where I was managing European digital health investments. In February of 2019, I joined Almirall where I am leading the Digital Office and the company’s transformation efforts.
We are trying to do things that are more ground-breaking and innovative in the industry
To what extent has your background in pharmacology improved your ability to make investment and strategy decisions in the life-sciences industry?
With my training as a basic scientist, I am able to speak the same language as our research colleagues. Whether we are discussing clinical innovation from a clinical research perspective, working on basic science innovation, discussing a potential licensing or an M&A partnership, having that knowledge has been enormously helpful in my career. Also, having a PhD in the biological sciences has allowed me to work with a more critical eye. We always joke that in the journal clubs we would tear apart the papers of the most pre-eminent scientists; I think that this questioning of whether things that are being done need to be done in a specific way has certainly helped in my current role as we are trying to do things that are more ground-breaking and innovative in the industry.
What are the main challenges you have seen in successfully utilising digital technologies to enhance conventional treatments?
The hiccups that I had anticipated were more in terms of convincing people who had typically done things in a more traditional way to change their approach. There was a little bit of uncertainty initially, but I would say that the islands of scepticism are now few and far between and even many of our initial sceptics have since become our greatest champions. This has enabled us to have complete buy-in from them and demonstrate how this innovation can bring value to them and to different parts of their businesses. That transition has been a really exciting and fulfilling one and I think allowing people to join you on the journey to transform the company is great. It is the times when people see the value that digital innovation and digital solutions and services can bring to their own part of the business that have been really fulfilling.
You are currently involved in developing and executing end-to-end companywide digital transformation at Almirall. How have you gone about ensuring that all departments are on board with this digital transformation?
Different from the approach in a lot of other companies, our mandate is really an end-to-end, enterprise-wide digital transformation. We are looking at everything: from our data analytics team looking at back-office automation and robotic process automation in finance, manufacturing, HR, and especially in our customer facing models, through to AI-driven discovery in our early-stage research or software enabled clinical trial management solutions for our clinical research colleagues, as well as some interesting digital therapeutics projects . We are working to provide digital solutions and services to better engage with our patients and physicians.
It is important that the digital efforts are across the whole company and not siloed within only the Digital Office. As a team, we endeavour to work in a very cross-functional way so that everyone’s objectives are aligned and we can move forward for the good of the business. I am strongly opposed to just throwing cool technology at a problem – the first question I always ask of the team is ‘what is the problem to be solved?’ and then I ask, ‘can it be solved via a technological or digital solution?’ If not, let’s not to do it because it doesn’t make sense to do so. That being said, there are a lot of problems that we certainly can solve with innovative solutions.
Looking ahead, do you expect to see digital clinical trials utilised on a more widespread basis in the pharma industry, particularly in the wake of COVID-19?
Absolutely. COVID has brought a level of comfort with technology as we have all been forced to interact in a more virtual way as a result of confinement across the globe. Technology-based solutions play a key role, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when I have been involved in conversations asking: how do we virtualise our trials? How do we utilise more innovative approaches like telemedicine and patient captured imaging? At Almirall, we have the advantage of focussing on medical dermatology, which is a very visual area of medicine and well-suited to this type of technology. We must always ask: how can we appropriately leverage technology not to remove the physician, but to better support the physician? The goal is to help them and allow them to get more precision in their diagnosis, treatments and segmentations in a more meaningful way.
Many of our initial sceptics have since become our greatest champions
What has been your biggest motivation throughout your career?
I’m interested in cutting-edge projects, so being at the vanguard, where it takes a lot of thinking through different scenarios and trying to understand how to get things done in a new environment, is attractive. For me, the focus has always been on the patient. Our patients stand to gain the most from all of our activities within pharma. The question I always ask is: how can we bring solutions to patients that are truly innovative and that truly change their lives and have an impact on their day-to-day? This is relevant to everything I have done: from working in research, to my time in academia and private equity, and now working in digital innovation in pharma. The goal has always been to try and accelerate evidence-based therapeutics so they can get to our patients faster and better, with stronger data, and hopefully cheaper as well.