Plai, designed to compile and process Sanofi’s internal data from various departments, creates bespoke “what if” scenarios to guide decision-making. Sanofi aims to exploit Plai’s analytical capabilities to enhance strategic planning.
From ChatGPT and Google Maps to Plai
Sanofi’s AI aspirations are longstanding. In 2022, the company launched its inaugural digital accelerator, supporting the adoption of digital, data and AI across operations. That same year, Sanofi acquired Amunix Pharmaceuticals, tapping its AI technology to develop targeted cancer therapies that spare healthy tissue. Also in 2022, the company opened an Artificial Intelligence Centre of Excellence in Toronto, adding to its international network of digital hubs in Paris, Boston, New York City and Barcelona.
One fact that has changed in the past year is public consciousness concerning AI. “For instance, AI models like ChatGPT have made AI accessible to the layperson,” said Diane Wuest, head of digital R&D at Sanofi. These days, AI-powered apps are a commonplace feature on smartphones. For instance, the public has become accustomed to using apps like Google Maps to find the best route based on live traffic analysis. “This shift towards AI integration in everyday life has influenced people’s expectations in the workplace,” Wuest said. “They wonder why they can’t have similar AI-driven tools for their professional tasks.”
The success stories from other industries have acted as catalysts, speeding the adoption of AI in the pharma industry. “At Sanofi, we’re embracing this change,” Wuest said. “The recent pandemic showed us that we can fast-track the process of bringing drugs to the market, and AI applications can further accelerate this process.”
She explains that the Plai app anchors their digital approach: “The Plai application is used across the whole company, and that’s why it’s considered ‘at scale.’ The intent of the app is to create transparency and facilitate good business discussions. It starts by visualizing data through dashboards. Then we layer on AI to inform decisions using that data. We leverage AI algorithms to generate predictions and simulations, guiding choices on various project aspects.”
AI upskilling Sanofi
Highlighting the need for digital literacy across all company levels, Wuest discussed Sanofi’s initiatives to address this. ‘Certainly, there is a learning curve when it comes to using AI technology,’ she acknowledged. To confront this challenge, the company has introduced an upskilling program, the Digital Learning Institute, which offers a wide range of both virtual and in-person courses. ‘Pharma has traditionally externalized the tech aspect, but now we’re building more internally and hiring talent with those skills,’ Wuest notes.”
Aligned with its unwavering commitment to training, Sanofi also champions Agile ways of working. Wuest stressed this focus, stating, “We understand that this process is a multi-year journey and should be treated as a career development path.” Consequently, the company provides substantial support and resources to cultivate this approach, recognizing its integral role in their digital transformation.
Powering research and drug development with AI
In R&D at Sanofi, AI has manifold uses. “At a company as large as ours, we use every type of AI,” Wuest explains. Notably, AI builds disease models and elucidates mechanisms, aiding the discovery of novel targets or indications. “Once the target is identified, we use AI every step of the way in creating the molecule,” she notes, expediting the process.
“We’re looking for novel molecules, not generics,” Wuest emphasizes after describing AI’s role in development, “we’re constantly on the cutting edge, seeking new methods from academia or startups.”
Sanofi’s data scientists work with R&D as well as in digital groups across the company. Wuest explained that the data science talent is decentralized, rather than being concentrated in one central AI hub.
Wuest emphasizes the robust internal backing for AI adoption. “Our goal is to become the first pharma company powered by AI at scale,’ she said, noting that comprehensive integration ensures the ‘AI solutions are sustainable, supported, and improved over time. Our strategy is innovation without borders,” according to Wuest, involving partnerships with academics, startups, and tech/biotech giants.”
Charting the AI future at Sanofi
The need for integration and objective assessment methods for AI systems continue to be paramount. This shift toward an AI-focused approach marks merely the first stage of a sweeping transformation.
Sanofi’s AI adoption remains nascent. The company’s swift expansion links to burgeoning AI fluency company-wide. “We’re at only the beginning. The pace at which we’re growing is incredibly fast,” says Wuest, noting this spurs unity, not division between digital and R&D. She foresees AI deeply embedded within Sanofi, its “language spoken throughout the whole company, becoming the fabric of it all.”
Filed Under: Data science, Industry 4.0, machine learning and AI