Sanofi’s Prescription for Innovation Success

by Jeffrey Tobias

Sanofi's Prescription for Innovation Success - innovation ExcellenceWhat do you do if you’re stuck on a “burning platform” with an implicit mandate to innovate but the time is not quite right for your organisation to kickstart a formal innovation hub?

If you’re Tal Rapke, you just do it.

Before Dr Rapke was innovation director at Sanofi he was medical director for the global healthcare giant.

He noted the “tsunami of change” beginning in healthcare – bringing an “amazing opportunity and potential risk for our business model” as the patient becomes the centre of attention. The “burning platform” is business shorthand for seismic change causing radical shifts in strategy. It stems from a story about a worker stranded on a blazing oil platform who had the option to do nothing and die or risk jumping for his life (he survived).

“I had a large medical department so I said, ‘Let’s do it’ Lets commit headcount to innovation and see what happens.’ ”

Decision-makers were subsequently infected by the passion and blessed the endeavour, making Dr Rapke Sanofi’s first innovation director and one who reports to the CEO.

Lean start-up and open innovation core to partnering with Sanofi

Dr Rapke says that although he works within Sanofi, a global company with €33.77 billion in sales last year, his “intrapreneurial” group shares a lean start-up approach in common with entrepreneurs.

“It has all the challenges of Lean Start-up in terms of runway and number of people involved etcetera. We stretch our capital at the start as far as possible. If we fail, we fail early and smartly so we learn. And we try to change the model in terms of how we partner to innovate.”

In moving from a transactional model of collaboration to true partnership, Sanofi’s size is a hindrance in a sector that is often siloed and traditional in its approach.

“When I go into the [healthcare] community and say I’m ready to collaborate, people say we’d love to be a partner – and here’s the cost. I’m trying to change the conversation.

“The future is to bring [together] everyone who has a skillset and create a split partnership where everyone shares in the wins and losses. For some people, it’s very challenging to get their heads around [but] others are very passionate.

“It does weed out a lot of people when you speak about partnering [on] innovation.”

Dr Rapke says many innovation programmes fall short because they’re focused on small wins or exist in a marketing context alone, so he defined where he wouldn’t innovate to enable him to focus on transformational benefits.

“How do you create revenue-generating, stand-alone business units that don’t interact with the business today? What’s in that either beyond [business as usual]? We have to focus on this area away from where everyone else is working.

“Healthcare is a sphere rather than a straight line – what we’re doing that seems ‘out there’ will come back in and be part of the business organization in the future.”

Dr Rapke’s ‘noble purpose’ is to deliver patients better health outcomes, improve their experience and cut inefficiencies that weigh on the health budget. “Unless any programme I work on ticks all three boxes, then that’s not where my passion is or where I want to focus.”

His goal isn’t to shoot for human immortality but “we should each have the right tools at our fingertips so we can make the right decisions in regards to our health”.

Overcoming internal barriers to innovation

Successful organisations can be their own worst enemies when it comes to embracing an innovation agenda, Dr Rapke says.

“Our challenge has always been about the frame. The healthcare industry is about feeling great and living fulfilling lives; so when you frame it that way, everything you do seems logical and not tangential to your current business.

“The challenge is we’ve always been a company delivering great products that solved a condition. When that’s your entire frame of reference, it’s a challenge to start believing you can do something different and realising the burning platform is changing quite rapidly and healthcare is evolving.”

Keeping a close watch on spending and cutting risks lends an innovation programme credibility, he says.

And since the purpose of Sanofi’s innovation agenda was to put the patient at the centre of healthcare practice, Dr Rapke brought in 60 patients to ask about their lives.

“As a company that’s truly product-centric, we were grappling with how do you bring a patient to the centre of what you do? Rather than ask what our products can do for you, [we asked them to] tell us a story; tell us about your health and what it’s like to be you.”

Through this empathetic, Design Thinking approach, researchers had a holistic view of the person they were trying to help. “You start to realise there’s a lot more to an individual than just that minute of the day they’re taking your medication.

“We asked them about their experience of living with disease or managing sick kids or taking a vaccine that didn’t work, and travelling and getting sick. There’s ways to touch people’s lives, and that became an impetus for change in the organisation.

“There were so many ways we could help people; let’s see what we can do to have that impact.”

image credit: innovationenterprise.com; nate cocoran pixntxt.com

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Sanofi's Prescription for Innovation Success - Innovation ExcellenceJeffrey Tobias’ career in the application of information technology, strategy and innovation has spanned academia, consulting, big and small business, government, research and entrepreneurship. He is Director of The Strategy Group, delivering strategic advice on Innovation, Design Thinking, Lean Startup, Ideation, Collaboration and Globalisation to corporations and governments, and is an active Angel Investor in the technology space.

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