Bayer is trialing digital solutions to boost its Pharma future. We chat to Jessica Federer, Head of Digital Development to learn more.
From its formation in 1863, Bayer AG has been a hugely influential and innovative chemical, scientific and pharma company, developing aspirin in 1899 and popularizing the pill, as a form of contraception, in the 1960s. More recently, it introduced the top-selling, second-generation quinolone antibiotic, Cipro, plus anti-cancer drug Nexavar. But to ensure its future is as bright as its past – and keep it at the forefront of pharma – Bayer is wholeheartedly embracing cutting-edge technology and is going digital.
However, when your organization was founded over 150 years ago and is a huge multinational with over 120,000 employees worldwide, achieving a brave, new digital world isn’t clear-cut. Consequently, to pave their transition, Bayer appointed digital guru Jessica Federer as their Head of Digital Development in July 2014. Ever since, she’s been revolutionizing their digital vision, adopting a strategic approach to the company’s digitalization process.
“My role, right now, is leading the digital transformation at Bayer, which basically means changing how we work, through digitalization, to connect people across all the different divisions and disciplines at Bayer,” explains Federer. “Digital transformation is inherently a collaborative effort and you need to bring everyone together to effect these changes because it’s a significant shift which touches our culture, our people, our processes, our platforms and our partnerships.”
“So, the first thing we did was start a digital council to take this new strategy forward, which involved both the technological and business sides of the Human, Animal and Plant divisions all coming together, steered by our board members,” she continues, outlining the initial stages of Bayer’s digitalization process.
“By bringing together all these different divisions to effect these changes, rather than have just one person making these changes alone, it means you can dramatically enhance the impact you have as you can implement these changes at scale,” suggests Federer. “Also, because Bayer is a very collaborative, ‘we’ focused organization - we like consensus and working together – a top-down implementation, which might work elsewhere, wouldn’t really work well here in getting everyone on board.”
Federer admits that Bayer’s digital transformation is still only in its embryonic stages but, even so, there have been notable benefits arising from the process.
“We only officially kicked-off our digital transformation in the last 15 months and pulled everyone together in the council a year ago, so we’re still very much on our digital journey. But a lot has been happening behind the scenes for the last few years too,” she says. “In the UK and China, for example, our country heads are leading Digital Transformation teams working across their organizations and our global Digital Excellence Council, which includes our CIO, Head of Data Privacy and other critical leaders across the business, is driving forward collaboration that enables the entire company to better benefit from digital tools and cutting-edge technology.
“But now that there are so many digital developments taking place, on so many levels, we felt it was time to take a strategic look at all our activities and work out how to bring them together and connect them better, through digitalization,” says Federer.
“It’s meant asking questions like; ‘do we really need hundreds of platforms to connect everything, or can we use fewer platforms to do the same thing?’ A few years ago, that wasn’t really an option because the systems didn’t talk to each other and we didn’t have access to the same tools we have now,” she admits. “But it’s a very different landscape today: we’re able to connect those dots much more easily and efficiently, particularly with our digitalization process.”
Let’s get digital
‘Going digital’ encompasses many stages, according to Federer, but one of the key components of digital transformation is ‘transparency.’ It’s a principle that Bayer has embodied from the outset.
“Transparency means we’ve had to take a good look at what we’re doing and at what people we have, with what digital talent, and what we need to do now - and in the future - to develop these people, to maximize their digital skills. It’s also meant looking at our data and information and whether we can simplify, update or combine any of the processes or platforms we use for storing, using and sharing this information, plus how we can better link everything together. That would be the ideal scenario.”
Another outcome of the transparency approach, which Bayer has adopted during their digital transformation, has been clarifying what their core business entails and also what it doesn’t.
“We make molecules, so we don’t have any ambitions to be the next, big Google,” asserts Federer. “Instead, we want to partner with the world’s leading digital companies to make our products more meaningful and have a bigger impact on society. That means asking ourselves questions like: ‘what are we doing with our partners across the whole business; how are we managing that; and how are we strategically working with them to innovate together?’ It’s an exciting but challenging process.”
First Steps into pharma and digitalization
Originally a Program Analyst at the US Department of Health and Human Services, Federer returned to University to undertake a Master’s Degree in Public Health, at Yale. It was while she was there that she was part of a team looking at how to measure hospital efficiency, with the broader aim of enabling care to be incentivized and reimbursed according to its quality.
“The team I worked with developed an administrative claims measure which is now used to profile hospital performance and reimburse accordingly,” she explains. “It means that if a hospital does well, on that measure, it gets reimbursed more, but if it does poorly then it gets reimbursed less. That was a big shift in healthcare.”
It was whilst she was undertaking this work, at Yale, that she met some of her future colleagues from Bayer, as there was a Bayer research site just off campus.
“I was on the HIC [Institutional Review Board] at Yale Medical School, reviewing protocol, so I got to know a lot of the companies that were doing clinical trial studies there, including Bayer,” Federer reminisces. “From that, I ended up joining Bayer in regulatory affairs because I figured if you’re going to work for the pharmaceutical industry you may as well work with the branch that works with the Government, as that was my focus at the time. So, that was how I took my first step into Pharma.”
Aside from her role in regulatory affairs, Federer has also worked in market advocacy and access at Bayer, before taking on the role of Head of Digital Development, in July 2014.
That’s great news for customers because instead of us saying; ‘we’re going to sell you a pill,’ we can say; ‘we’re going to sell you a result.’
“What I love about Bayer is it’s not just a pharma company. We also do plant and animal research, along with human research. That makes it one of the few pharma companies you can work for and still be a public health nerd, like me,” she says, laughing.
“Also, it’s a very successful, innovative company - especially scientific innovation - which you have to be, if you’re going to stick around for 150 years,” she adds, proudly. “But now, the digital transformation enables us to have a lot more interoperability too, which allows us to potentially innovate even more.”
There have already been spin-offs and benefits for Bayer and its end-users, from their digital transformation, as Federer explains.
“It’s enabled a shift – a connectivity – to take place and, with the information we now have available, payers are more able to look at outcomes, more frequently, than they could in the past. This is changing the business model for pharma and pushing us to deliver more,” she argues.
“It’s now very difficult and expensive to take a molecule through ten years of clinical trials, involving tens of thousands of people all around the world, and meet the increasingly high hurdles to bring a new product to the people that need it – especially as you don’t always know how you will get reimbursed for this work: it’s high risk! But digitalization enables us to play on a different level, by having better data that shows the actual impact of the product.
“That’s great news for customers because instead of us saying; ‘we’re going to sell you a pill,’ we can say; ‘we’re going to sell you a result.’ That’s how it should be because when you buy something, like a car, you buy it for the promise of what it’s going to do - how well it performs on the road,” Federer surmises. “With medicine, that hasn’t always been the case because some medications work better than others, depending on who’s taking it, how you take it and what you take it with, and so on.”
“We’ve always known that there’s a variance in how molecules work and how people respond to them. But now, with digitalization, we’re on the cusp of having the ability to better understand and predict how a medicine will work using the data we have to help us segment and improve what we’re actually trying to do. We’re using digital science for a better life – to actually make a difference for people,” she says. “Now, we’re not there yet – we’ve got a little way to go. But it’s the direction that we’re headed in and that’s what we’re hoping for!
In terms of what I want to do, I want to make a lasting impact, to leave something sustainable with the digital transformation we’re implementing.
“You know, I’ve found a nice group of science-minded people here at Bayer, who really want to make a difference,” says Federer. “It’s going to sound cheesy, but I’m very much inspired by my colleagues. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have stayed here so long – it’s nearly nine years now. My boss, Kemal Malik, is especially inspiring. He’s a physician who is the board member for Innovation, including R&D, Clinical and Global Development, and when you speak to him, you always understand that his main focus is the person – the patient. It’s not about anything else. Having that clear vision and focus on the person, from your boss and your colleagues, makes work a lot more fun and rewarding.”
Federer concedes she has a similar, underlying motive for the implementation of a digital revolution at Bayer.
“In terms of what I want to do, I want to make a lasting impact, to leave something sustainable with the digital transformation we’re implementing,” she says, solemnly. “When it comes to digitalization that’s so important: we can’t get this wrong.
“Bayer has an amazing legacy; it’s the company that initiated the pharmaceutical era with the creation of aspirin, and now we have an opportunity to really step-in and help initiate the digital era in health, as well,” she adds, smiling infectiously. “It will challenge how we work, admittedly, and it will challenge our processes but if there’s one thing I know about this company, it’s that we evolve and adapt very well: you can’t last this long, in this industry, without doing that.