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A few months ahead of incoming CEO Paul Hudson’s start at Sanofi, the French pharma is undertaking a big data collaboration with Google that it hopes can help its R&D engine work more efficiently toward personalized medicine while also applying analytics to its commercial operation. The two companies announced their alliance centered around creating a “virtual innovation lab” on 18 June. No financial terms nor the length of the agreement were disclosed.

Details on the partnership are scant at present, but the alliance apparently is not between Sanofi and Google’s health care spinout Verily Life Sciences LLC. Those two entities teamed up in 2016 to create a diabetes-focused joint venture called Onduo, with the partners jointly investing $500m in the effort. That deal came roughly a month after Verily announced its Galvani Bioelectronics JV with GlaxoSmithKline PLC, which is focused on bioelectronic medicines for inflammatory, metabolic and endocrine disease. 

Sanofi previously has inked big data and artificial intelligence partnerships with IBM Life SciencesSchrodinger Inc. and Exscientia Ltd. – each focused on drug discovery efforts. At the time of the Exscientia collaboration in May 2017, Sanofi external innovation head Adam Keeney indicated that the pharma was just getting started on employing analytics in its operations. “This is part of an ongoing evolution and evaluation of how to keep on the cutting edge, to aid our efforts in drug discovery," he said of the agreement with Exscientia.

Sanofi said the partnership with Google could allow it to access “the power of emerging data technologies” to transform the delivery of future medicines and health care delivery. Sanofi’s chief digital officer and chief medical officer Ameer Nathan said the alliance will employ artificial intelligence and cloud computing to “accelerate the development of new therapies.”

When Hudson, former head of pharmaceuticals in North America for AstraZeneca PLC and outgoing head of pharmaceuticals at Novartis AG, was tapped to succeed Olivier Brandicourt as the new Sanofi CEO in September, Sanofi chairman Serge Weinberg said his remit would include accelerating growth and leading the group's adaptation to new strategic challenges, particularly in the areas of R&D and digital.

The collaboration with Google will begin with three primary objectives: gain better understanding of patients and their diseases; increase Sanofi’s operational efficiency; and improve the experience of Sanofi’s patients and other customers. Beginning with Sanofi’s proprietary data sets, the effort will use deep analytics to understand “key diseases and extract related patient insights,” Sanofi said.

Efforts On Personalized Medicine, Optimizing Sales And Marketing

These efforts will seek to bring about more personalized approaches to individual therapy and create accompanying technologies to improve health outcomes – hopefully both optimizing care and creating health care system savings, the pharma added.

Sanofi also will use AI to improve sales forecasts and help direct marketing and supply chain efforts by using real-time information about geographic, logistical and manufacturing factors, it explained. Lastly, Sanofi will look to modernize its infrastructure by migrating some of its business systems to the Google Cloud Platform.

Partnerships between biopharmaceutical companies and big data firms have become more commonplace of late, including at Sanofi. In addition to the diabetes joint venture with Verily, the company's vaccine unit Sanofi Pasteur announced earlier this month that it will team with Kaiser Permanente to evaluate the Flublock vaccine in an observational trial using data collected from roughly 1.6m patients.

IBM Watson was an early leader in analytic-focused partnerships with biopharma companies, including Celgene Corp.Pfizer Inc. and Novartis, but its parent company decided earlier this year to end agreements pertaining to drug discovery for that business.

While the interface between biopharma and big data firms is increasing, a panel at the Big Data and Analytics in Healthcare forum in London in February warned that such alliances will only be as effective as they are understood by the various stakeholders participating in them. Different functions within a biopharma company might have varying expectations about what a data alliance will offer them, which means a group process toward a shared set of goals is recommended for such partnerships.

One exercise that can help is the “use case” scenario, which can prevent stakeholders from getting caught up in big buzzwords without any understanding of what an end product of the partnership might be, Chris Hutchins of the health care analytics company Northwell Health told the panel. A use case is a sequence of actions, performed by one or more persons or non-human entities in or outside the system, that is expected to produce results of value to the users. The use case, not the technology itself, should drive a partnership, Hutchins said.

Dipak Kalra, president of the European Institute for Innovation through Health Data, stressed the importance of data-sharing in making such an alliance effective. He recommended the concept of FAIR to the audience: the data in an analytics collaboration should be findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable.

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