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Talking Digital Transformation: “I am a True Geek and Love Technology.”

by Ellen Thalman

How is one of the oldest German companies driving change in terms of digital transformation? And is it sensible for a blue chip to adapt to an agile startup culture? Insights from Saskia Steinacker, global head digital transformation at Bayer

Bayer calls itself a life science company – so this implies a focus on the human condition. Some people would argue that digitalization and artificial intelligence have a dehumanizing effect on the world. What would you say to this accusation?

Digitalization and digital transformation for me is always a means to an end. By 2050 there will be more than nine billion people on this planet and we have to make sure that we can feed them in a sustainable way. Moreover, illnesses like cancer and cardiovascular diseases are on the rise and we have to find new ways of fighting them. What excites me is how digitalization can help us solve these challenges. Personally, I am a true geek and love technology. I have fought for girls to learn to code and I worked in IT for several years – but the true purpose is being able to apply these technologies to major challenges. And that’s where digital health and farming present immense opportunities.

Tell me about how you approach some of these challenges using digital technology.

Digitalization helps us to identify diseases and illnesses at an earlier stage and to provide more individualized treatment, for example with the help of AI. Lung diseases are just one area that could be better diagnosed using pattern-recognition software to help interpret CT scans. Digital technologies also help us develop and produce medicine much faster and more efficiently.

Beyond technology, the idea is to bring about a shift in mindset and culture towards digitalization.

In farming, it is possible to choose the right seed based on data science as well as the right time and appropriate dose of crop protection for every square meter of ground – something that allows for much more sustainable land use. So we not only help farmers to maximize their yields based on better decisions, but we also enable more sustainable farming for our planet. The digital transformation of our company is a prerequisite for fully leveraging new technologies. This is why we set up our Digital Agenda to facilitate the change process at Bayer – from learning new skills to better using available data, new platforms and solutions, as well as partnerships with innovative startups. Beyond technology, the idea is to bring about a shift in mindset and culture towards digitalization.

How do you get one of Germany’s biggest, oldest companies to act with the agility of a tech startup?

A big corporation can never have the same culture as a startup and it probably should not. What we need, though, is more collaboration and cross-functionality, which means no longer doing projects in a linear way, where someone develops something, then IT weighs in, followed by ideas from the next area, and so on. Instead, we bring together different expertise within the company right from the start. People on the business side need a basic understanding of technology and IT people need business knowledge, and we also need people with medical, regulatory, or legal knowledge. We also promote more experimentation without fear of failing. With our group-wide digital innovation award, we celebrate those role models. Recently we celebrated a cross-functional team that is creating a diagnostic tool for CTEPH, which is a rare form of pulmonary hypertension. A doctor sitting in front of a CT scan could be supported by a software that recognizes certain patterns of this disease. Another project is about the creation of a digitized factory at our plant in Garbagnate, Italy, which uses AI and machine learning to improve efficiency. It was recognized by the World Economic Forum as one of the world’s most innovative factories, and we are very proud of this achievement. But we not only celebrate successful projects, but we also have a fail forward award, because sometimes things simply do not work, but we still generate learning and support experimentation. We also need more collaboration with innovative start-ups to achieve a shift in our mindset.

Tell me about some of these collaborations.

Some of our collaborative projects are about mentorship, but we also offer partnerships for more mature start-ups with a focus on scaling together. Our major initiative in the area of digital health is a program called G4A Partnerships. Six years ago we were one of the first pharmaceutical companies collaborating with digital health startups, and as this market has matured since then we recently redesigned our program. Instead of one-off fundings, we are now focusing on longer-term collaborations in specific digital health focus areas, like digital therapeutics, AI for drug discovery, and patient engagement platforms. We have supported more than 149 digital health companies in recent years and this has resulted in 29 direct collaborations. One example is the start-up Turbine, from Budapest, which is working with AI to model how cancer works on the molecular level. With this, you can simulate research that usually takes place in-vitro, testing potential drugs in-silico instead – which is much faster and allows for the prediction of laboratory experiments using data and advanced analytics.

Does a company like Bayer need to support that kind of experimentation today more than before due to rapid change in the digital world?

I would say with digital technology you suddenly have more options than you had before – especially in healthcare and agriculture, but also in other industries. Developing new medicine, for example, is a very rigid process that takes a long time, is very expensive, and you often fail.  But now with the help of digital solutions, we have new opportunities to speed up this process and even develop new solutions and new business models. Digital has the potential to disrupt our industries, but we are really only just at the brink of bringing these models to full-scale use. We are still testing new technologies in many areas. We are also training people to give them the skills to operate in these ambiguous situations and allow them to say, “I may not yet know the exact outcome, but I think the direction is correct and I am going to have the courage to find a good solution.”

Earlier, we touched on the idea of risks, ethics, and regulation – something many people are concerned about. What needs to be done and what does Bayer see as its responsibility?

I am a member of the EU’s high-level expert group on artificial intelligence, which has a two-year mandate to develop ethical guidelines. The group comes from industry, NGOs, academia – it’s very diverse. The guidelines aim to cover basic principles for safeguarding fundamental rights and key requirements for ethical, or trustworthy, AI.

What I believe is very important – both personally and at Bayer – is that trust, taking an ethical stance, is the only way to make the best use of digital technologies.

That is something we strongly believe in at Bayer. Yes, we want to drive digitalization, but it needs to be done in a trustworthy way. The EU group also looks at the regulatory environment from an investment standpoint, such as infrastructure and research.  How do you educate people, what do you do with private services, how do you drive the uptake of AI in different sectors? What I believe is very important – both personally and at Bayer – is that trust, taking an ethical stance, is the only way to make the best use of digital technologies. If digital technology supports doctors in making their decisions – and this is what we want – then you need trust. We want an innovation-friendly environment, so a rather flexible regulatory framework, balanced with an ethical framework, so we can remain competitive. Trustworthy and competitive.

Are the Europeans behind or ahead of the curve of this thinking?

Europe is definitely out in front of ethical guidelines. Before, there was no talk of this elsewhere – not in the US and not in China. So Europe has definitely put a stake in the ground. I was recently at a conference in the Middle East with a number of major tech players from China and they were all suddenly talking about ‘trustworthy applications’ and ‘ethics’ and ‘technology for good’ – so you could clearly see that these first steps forward by Europe put the others under a bit of pressure. In a nutshell, Europe has always been strong in this area, and we should continue this, but always keep in mind we have to be competitive, too.

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