The pharmaceutical industry has by most accounts adopted patient-centricity as their new business model. It is a keynote topic for most executives. Yet few can point to initiatives that have achieved results beyond the drug. When it comes to delivering on patient-centricity, innovation seems to be the greatest hurdle facing these leaders.

I set out across the industry searching for stories of accomplishments in an effort to better understand this: Is there is a formula for success in innovation? What I found was that few have designed and implemented forward thinking solutions with quantitative results. It is proving difficult to convert seeds of ideas into material solutions that make a real difference in the life of the patient. However, I identified one success that truly exemplifies innovation in patient-centricity. In this article I dig into this case study and highlight six practices that could make innovation a powerful force in your organization.

1. Start With a Strong, Clearly Defined Purpose

Michele Polz, AVP, Patient Insights & Analytics with the U.S. Diabetes Patient Centered Unit at Sanofi US, shared an example of the company’s approach to innovation by actively working to understand and deliver on customer needs in an effort to improve care. She explains, “There are six hours a year that a diabetes patient is with a medical professional—the other 8,754 hours, they must manage diabetes on their own.”

With this level of intimate comprehension, Sanofi defined a clear patient-centric goal: Develop innovative, integrated and personalized solutions to meet the needs of individuals. This led to an idea that produces real benefits to patients and fuels the innovators who have dedicated themselves to make a difference in their lives.

2. Look Beyond Your Four Walls

Three years ago, Sanofi launched the Data Design Diabetes Challenge (DDD) to leverage the creativity of the public at large. They believed that innovators who shared their passion and a goal to improve patient lives were out there, and that by working in partnership they’d arrive at the most inspired and effective data-driven solutions. The challenge recently produced its third annual winner, Connect & Coach, a solution that connects dieticians and educators with consumers through their smartphone. The product resulted in an in-store partnership with a large grocery chain and a clinical trial is in progress.

But the challenge’s benefits stretch far beyond the single winning solution each year. Challenge applicants include individuals and startups vying for a $100,000 award and the opportunity to get their product into market at a commercial level. A pool of judges selects promising applicants to participate in an intensive mentorship program, design boot camp—and an opportunity to get real market feedback. Participants chosen to move on to Demo Day are subject to the public’s vote to narrow the field to two finalists. Each finalist puts their innovation to the test, taking it to the diabetes community to measure outcomes and iterate their solution. Winning is the goal, but the outcomes for these innovators includes exposure that can drive funding. Participants have raised over $30 million in capital already.

Not surprisingly, these startups create disruptive inventions, but how did Sanofi’s seed of an idea become a growing initiative that has gained national recognition?

3. Involve and Empower People to Build and Maintain Momentum

Sanofi put intent behind creating a culture of innovation, defining it as an opportunity to generate outcomes of which the entire company would be proud. Polz explains that this initiative was built by gaining support from leadership first, then stakeholders, partners and key departments throughout the organization. In conjunction with the leadership organization, her team worked quickly to define and socialize the goals. Early inclusion of legal, regulatory, business development and communications paved the way for alignment between internal departments.

The team encouraged personnel to be as creative as possible, to have a voice, and to challenge the status quo with confidence. These components drove alignment throughout the organization and gave everyone a stake in the challenge’s success. With this vision, and empowerment in place, the team was able to launch the challenge in just six weeks.

4. Get Scrappy

Working on a six-week timeline meant that Sanofi had to get the word out fast. And the cost to promote the challenge: “It might come as a surprise,” Polz states, “but we actually spent zero media dollars on the DDD Challenge. One-hundred percent of the outreach was social.” Through social media, Sanofi identified 300 key influencers in the diabetes arena to target with the challenge promotion. Social media did the rest, generating an impactful 19 million media impressions on a monthly basis. This rapidly produced a strong applicant pool, the key ingredient of DDD.

5. Experiment and Iterate

During the interview Polz said, “Something you should know about me is I don’t like to do the same thing more than once. I like to innovate and accelerate our learning.” In pharma, where repetition is the norm and experimentation is generally not rewarded, that is a pioneer’s mindset. This iterative approach has helped Sanofi continuously improve and keep their winning formula fresh. In 2011, the entrants were required to incorporate government data about diabetes into their innovation. In 2013, they wanted to see how open data could be used to unlock critical insights to improve patient experience, clinical outcomes and economic realities in health. Innovators were asked to submit concepts that have the potential to create real change with real knowledge.

6. Productize the Approach and Spread the Formula

“The assets that we build, the capabilities of DDD, are leveraged not only here by our U.S. based teams,” Polz says, “but this year our global colleagues in Frankfurt launched the  ‘Ignite: The Diabetes Ideas Challenge.’ [Sanofi] invited not only patients and caregivers, but designers, engineers and innovators from around the globe to submit ideas that would change the features and design of the next generation insulin delivery device.”

Most companies have a handful of innovators peppered throughout their organization, but in this space few companies have created a repeatable formula that gives life to a novel idea. If a culture is stymied by inertia, a sense that it is too hard to do something different, change won’t happen. Creating a formula and guidelines that give people permission and a process to fuel ideas is critical to creating a culture of innovation.

  • Peter Robinson

    Peter Robinson is co-founder and head of Measurement & Analytics at PURSUIT. He designed their proprietary Collaborative Filtering algorithm and helps customers develop Sales & Marketing optimization solutions.

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