Sanofi’s CDO on Hacking Health Systems

TECHNOLOGYMilind Kamkolkar, Chief Data Officer, Sanofi

“I try to find ways to hack the system and rebuild it in ways that’s more meaningful.”

Who is Milind Kamkolkar—and why is he being sought out by conferences worldwide (xMed, Exponential Medicine, Lions International Festival of Creativity) to explain how technology can help solve some of healthcare’s problems?

In brief, he’s the Chief Data Officer at Sanofi, and previously served as Global Head of Data Sciences and Digital Medicines at Novartis and Global Head of Next-Gen Analytics. Today, he simultaneously serves as Digital Health, Data and AI expert for PA Consulting Group’s management team. He has delivered a Google Tech Talk sponsored by UCLA, on building a “minority report”-like social media monitoring in the pharma corporate boardroom. So his resumé on technological change is pretty solid.

But there’s one skill that doesn’t show up as clearly in that resumé, and that’s his ability to explain to non-technical people all the effects of the changes that are happening. It turns out that Milind is a very down-to-earth guy.

“I try to find ways to hack the system and rebuild it in ways that are more meaningful.”

For instance, on the subject of why tech benefits are not moving as fast as they might in our industry, he points out that we have organizations split by business units and franchises—in other words, siloed so that they don’t communicate well on an enterprise level, thereby diminishing the efficiency technology might otherwise offer. “We have to address at scale the opportunity to engage,” he says. “Reaching the right customer on the right channel with the right message is dependent on data being shared company-wide.” He calls it “doing things better rather than doing better things.”

This effort shows up in his choice of team members. He has brought in people from many different industries and companies—like Google—rather than narrowing his focus to those with healthcare experience. “They are unbiased about how things ‘should be done,’ and aim rather for fresh ways to tackle a challenge.”

He also has interesting views that influence the marketing of products. “While we are enjoined to produce the most valuable products, we must also look at how to offer the most lovable products.” This is an insight common in consumer goods, but uncommon in pharma. “You have to tell a story behind what you’re offering,” he says.

“You have to look at behavioral intelligence, emotional intelligence, psychological intelligence and environmental intelligence, because all of those impacts help us. How do we create a more informed society? Through data storytelling, data journalism, algorithms and visualizing the information we have. We also have to take into account cultural biases across the world,” an important message for increasingly global companies. “When it comes to the customer, for example, one country might say ‘HCP’ while another says ‘physician,’ and in the olden days of master-data management, you had to code that in as two separate entities, then create a joining table that allowed you to understand it all. Today, you can use knowledge graph capabilities to remove the barriers—or politics- of dictionary management. This is where I see automation having a massive role to play.”

“I like to be the stupidest person in the room, because then you get to ask the most innocent, insightful questions.”

Milind is an activist for asking different questions and entertaining different approaches. He says “My team has to demystify the complexity of the organization. We look at things in a naïve way, as a child does, always asking ‘Why?’” Often management’s pushback is “We’ve been doing it this way for years,” but Milind’s response is “That’s exactly why you’re not getting the results that consumer companies get.”

He says that companies don’t always ask the right questions. They know what they want to tell us about their products, but they don’t always understand the way to pitch those messages to different audiences—patients, physicians, even reps. “First, articulate the problem you’re trying to solve, the goal you want to reach. That will lead you to an answer related to the human interaction you need to create.”

“I like to be the stupidest person in the room, because then you get to ask the most innocent, insightful questions.”

It should come as no surprise that he admires a great communicator like Neil deGrasse Tyson, whom he has met. Asking the astrophysicist about the secret of his ability to tell stories, he was told “If you can relate it to pop culture, people will remember it. Most people think with their hearts, not their minds.”


Milind’s parents are both physicians, which gave him a world view growing up that many others don’t get. Growing up in an Asian culture, he also perceived that there were just two highly valued professions: medicine and engineering. “I couldn’t see myself getting behind a scalpel, so I studied engineering. The combination of these two fields is what influenced the professional I’ve become.”

His gift for communication he attributes partly to growing up in Sydney, Australia. “Ozzies try to compress everything into one or two syllables. This teaches you to deliver a message in the most efficient way.”

Another teaching experience was his life as a husband and father. He has a daughter who is lactose intolerant, and a special-needs son who has made his parents into creative communicators. “Exchanging information with my son has been a graduate course in itself,” he says.


As a result of his varied background, and his curiosity about this industry, Milind has a refreshing point of view about what we need to do. “Patients don’t want to be called patients anymore. They’re customers!” he says. This leads to insights like “On day one of onboarding a patient to a medication, they don’t want to know how it works. First they want to know ‘What do I do?’” That’s the kind of thing that informs smart marketing.

“I look at companies like eBay, which is very intelligent about consumer interaction. Every click follows in succession from that first point of engagement. There’s a logic flow that we often miss in healthcare.”

He also sees healthcare in a very holistic way. “This is no longer an industry. It’s everything. When we’re in cars, healthcare is involved; when we’re flying, it’s involved. At school, at work, throughout our lives, there are points of contact that have to do with healthcare.”

“The way medical people speak about a disease is not the way patients speak about it. A patient might say, ‘Oh man, my head is about to explode,’ and it’s not a physical explosion, rather a headache.”

Despite being a geneticist by training, he says “If I buy a medication for myself for a common cold, I’m bamboozled. I look in the aisle and I might choose just by the color of the box! Customer experience has to happen at the customer level, or we’re missing the greatest opportunity.”

He notes that “The way medical people speak about a disease is not the way patients speak about it. For example, a patient might say, ‘Oh man, my head is about to explode,’ and it’s not a physical explosion, rather a headache. But how do you capture that effectively?”


He offers some wisdom about how we operate in a digital age. In pharma, that job falls to the CDO. “Right now, we treat the CDO as an evangelist and glorified cheerleader, but the larger role is around industrializing digital as an operating model.”

He expanded on his idea that digital needs to be part of the corporate DNA: “The CEO must be committed to industrializing digital; it can’t be an afterthought. It can’t be, ‘Let’s hire a CDO and let them do all this wonderful work.’ That person can facilitate and lead the change, but you need to build the organization around it.”

“Right now, we treat the CDO as an evangelist and glorified cheerleader, but the larger role is around industrializing digital as an operating model.”

Digital centers of excellence can provide support but they are often given “a small pot of money from which they have to beg, borrow and steal from different brand teams, franchises or groups,” says Milind—an approach that “doesn’t work if you want to industrialize digital.”

“There are two shifts happening. One is from brand into therapeutic area support, care pathways and truly understanding the science— in understanding why certain effects happen across different patient populations and how they manifest themselves into customer experiences with their physician or healthcare systems. Digital can facilitate this level of engagement.

Milind Kamkolkar at the Cannes Lions International Lions Festival of Creativity 2017

“The second shift is that pharma is claiming a stake in the healthcare apparatus, resulting in a ‘horizontalization’ of the industry.” he says. “We used to think of healthcare as a vertical industry but that is no longer the case. There are numerous industries claiming a healthcare position, engaging with patients, physicians or regulators. They are not coming from within the classical boundaries, and they are forcing us to rethink, in a very positive way, our current business model.”

Marketing teams could also better reflect the current multichannel climate, he says. “Most members of our marketing teams today were once reps, but reps are just one of many channels now. Personal relationships still make a difference but rep-led engagement is already eroding.

“At Sanofi, we have created a framework called ‘Fair,’ humbly borrowing from the R&D world of ‘FAIR’ data standards—findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. The number one issue for most of our business users, internal or external, is that we simply don’t know if we have the information or not, so the ability to find information is the biggest issue.”


Milind sees apps as vitally important to our future, but relatively immature at present. “The first iteration of apps weren’t developed with a commercial model in mind. The easiest way to check is to see when the app was last updated—if there wasn’t a product mindset behind the app, it was a complete waste of money.”

Key questions need to be asked, he adds. “Do you have a product management group that is looking at the app as an entity that contributes to P&L? Is it something that is going to improve either the customer experience or the patient journey?

“The brand manager may have changed and the app is floating around in the app store with no one saying, ‘Hang on a second, do users really want to use it this way? What do we need to change to make it a more compelling experience?’ That rarely happens,” he laments.


“I hope that 10 years from now, it is just part of business and is a new revenue stream. That should be the goal. To achieve that, you need people who really understand digital economics, who know how to consolidate initial successes so there are not just niche successes coming through.”

It is also high time for a culture change, he says, rebuking the tech industry’s lack of diversity in general. Diversity will drive better outcomes, he stresses. “Digital and data, in many ways, are the operating levers of how we work in the future,” Milind affirms. Yet, it’s not just down to pharma companies. “Payers can’t do it alone, regulators can’t do it alone and we certainly can’t do it alone.”

Parts of this article are adapted from an interview eyeforpharma conducted with Milind Kamkolkar. Our thanks to them for permission to use this material.

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