Interview: Catarina Santos, Corporate Innovation Expert in Pharma

Get insights from an industry innovator on balancing in-house and external venturing activities and a forecast of corporate entrepreneurship in the next 10 years.

Catarina Santos
Catarina Santos

In a business landscape where speed and constant innovation are critical for survival, open innovation is transforming how companies operate, arming them with disruptive ideas, new business models, and cutting-edge technologies at a pace that was once unthinkable. 

Forbes 2000 companies are boldly leading the way, leveraging not just their internal knowledge, assets, and resources but also tapping into the external ecosystem to:

  • Boost revenue
  • Diversify their portfolios 
  • Reach new markets
  • Develop and launch new offerings   

This isn’t just a fleeting trend; it’s a fundamental shift in the way our business landscape works, where being the first to seize new growth opportunities can make or break a business. 

To help us understand how open innovation works in practice, we caught up with Catarina Santos, Executive Director of EMEA at Novartis. Having led numerous successful pharmaceutical product launches, she's built a reputation for transforming business strategies and nurturing key partnerships.

Read on to find out what she has to say about open innovation, how to balance in-house and external initiatives, what the landscape will look like in 10 years and more.  

Q: Tell us about your journey from getting a PhD to becoming an MBA. How has it influenced your approach to corporate entrepreneurship?

Catarina: Sure. I’ve been interested in genetics and how it shapes our health from a young age. It was an exciting time with the human sequencing project at its peak, so pursuing a degree and then a PhD in genetics felt like the right path for me. 

After a decade of research in areas like oncology, genetics, and signalling pathways and a handful of published articles, I knew it was time for a change. I got my MBA and started a career in pharma with the goal of creating a shorter-term impact.

The experience honed a variety of skills, from strategic planning to conflict resolution, and launched me into roles where I was able to roll out drugs, lead business units, and develop detailed business plans. Blending my PhD and MBA experiences, I've distilled three big corporate entrepreneurship lessons: 

  • Embrace a cross-functional approach. It enhances communication, agility, and strategic vision, making your team more effective and responsive.
  • Expand your stakeholder base for collaboration. A diverse network, combined with a strong interest in technology, can fuel innovative ideas and solutions.
  • Cultivate a continuous learning mindset. It's the key to driving innovation, disrupting the market, and maintaining your competitive edge.

Q: Looking back on your career, which innovation initiatives made the biggest impact? Which ones are you the most proud of and why?

Catarina: Some of the most game-changing moments in my career came from forging the right strategic partnerships. By mixing in-house expertise with external knowledge and technology, we were able to create unforeseen incremental value, strengthening the resilience, well-being and reputation of our healthcare ecosystem. Examples that immediately come to mind include partnerships with:

  • Academic institutions in areas like innovative strategy and people development
  • Diagnosis labs for leaner patient journeys
  • Process improvement partners for innovative programmes on higher efficiency
  • Digital start-ups for service innovation

That’s just to name a few. The selection of trustworthy, value-aligned, and strategy-aligned partners remains, in my opinion, one of the most important success elements for most organisations on their journey to faster innovation, a distinctive value proposition, and sustainable growth.

Q: What do you see as the key elements to smoothly integrating in-house innovations with those sourced externally?

Catarina: Leadership and a clear innovation strategy are fundamental. It's all about setting clear goals and developing a roadmap that guides decision-making as well as internal and external communication. It also makes the integration process a lot smoother.

Next, you need a solid project management framework. It encourages effective collaboration, reduces duplication of effort, improves project efficiency, and keeps innovation activities on track and aligned with organisational goals. 

Another factor is recognising and managing cultural differences and organisational dynamics. Implementing change management measures and fostering a cooperative and adaptable culture can help ensure everyone is moving in the same direction.

Lastly, it's crucial to have a robust IP management strategy in place. This includes developing explicit agreements and standards for intellectual property ownership, licencing, and rights. It's a bit like setting the ground rules in a shared workspace—everyone knows what's theirs, what's shared, and how to respect others' space. This makes it easier to integrate and effectively leverage all types of innovation, both in-house and external.

Q: What’s the best strategy for structuring teams to handle both internal R&D and external partnerships? What structure leads to optimal outcomes?

Catarina: The optimal team structure depends on the company's size, innovation strategies, resources, and contractual obligations. For instance, external innovation can be approached in a variety of ways:

  • Academic and research collaborations can help identify new targets, validate drug candidates, and advance scientific knowledge.
  • Licensing and technology transfer can broaden product pipelines and harness external expertise, allowing companies to concentrate on their strengths.
  • Strategic acquisitions and mergers can provide access to innovative portfolios, pipelines, or proprietary technologies of smaller biotech firms.
  • VCs or venture arms can invest in external startups to support the development of innovative therapies and provide access to potential future products.

External innovation hubs, incubators and crowdsourcing are also good examples of open innovation strategies. 

Companies can tailor their structure to match their innovation model. For instance, business development and external innovation teams often focus on finding and analysing collaboration opportunities, building partnerships and maintaining relationships with external entities. They also manage alliances, enabling knowledge exchange between internal teams and external partners.

Many pharmaceutical companies also have a venture capital arm to identify and invest in promising startups. Then there are cross-functional teams, which combine profiles from different departments to work collaboratively on specific projects or partnerships. It's a fantastic way to boost collaboration between internal R&D and external partners.

Some companies choose to fully incorporate outsourced R&D efforts into their own framework, providing another layer of integration.

The key thing here is flexibility. Your structure should be adaptable enough to evolve with your innovation strategy. Keep assessing and refining your structure, and foster a culture that values collaboration, agility, and openness to new ideas. That’s the secret to successfully combining internal and external sources of innovation.

Q: What challenges should corporate entrepreneurs look out for when scaling both an internal and external venture simultaneously? How can they effectively overcome these challenges?

Catarina: Balancing the scale-up of both internal and external ventures at once can be a real test, stretching resources thin and sometimes causing conflicts. But there are ways to navigate these challenges:

Strategic alignment 

It can be tricky to align the strategies of both internal and external ventures that might have different goals, timelines, or stakeholder expectations. The trick here is to define the strategic objectives clearly for each venture and spot areas where they can complement each other. 

Also, make sure to regularly communicate and align the strategies of both ventures with the overarching goals of the organisation. This way, resources can be allocated based on strategic goals. Keeping everyone on the same page and fostering collaboration will ensure efforts aren't at odds with each other.

Organisational culture

With multiple ventures, you may face a mix of cultures and working styles. Internal and external ventures may have different approaches, priorities, and ways of working, creating cultural challenges and potential resistance. 

You can cultivate a collaborative and adaptable work culture by championing open lines of communication and transparency across all teams. This includes encouraging knowledge sharing and learning from both internal and external initiatives. Also, don't underestimate the power of providing tailored training and adequate support, as these can significantly smooth the transition for employees adapting to new ways of working.

Stakeholder management 

Juggling the expectations of various stakeholders, including internal teams, external partners, investors, and regulatory authorities, can be tough. Each venture may have different stakeholder requirements and timelines.

Develop a comprehensive stakeholder management plan that considers the specific needs and interests of each venture. Maintain open and regular communication with stakeholders, providing updates on progress, addressing concerns, and managing expectations. Lastly, taking the time to build strong relationships and trust with key stakeholders will help facilitate collaboration and support down the line. 

Risk management

More ventures mean more exposure to risk. Each venture comes with unique challenges, including regulatory hurdles, market uncertainties, and operational risks. Managing and mitigating these risks effectively is crucial.

Implement robust risk management processes for each venture, including risk assessment, mitigation strategies, and contingency plans. Then regularly monitor and evaluate risks, adjusting your strategies and actions accordingly.  Also, it's crucial to cultivate a company culture where proactive risk identification is welcomed, and challenges are faced head-on, swiftly and decisively.

Leadership and team management 

Leading and managing teams across multiple ventures requires strong leadership skills and the ability to balance competing priorities. Ensuring effective coordination, collaboration, and motivation among team members is essential.

Provide clear leadership and direction to each team, setting expectations and goals. Empower team members with autonomy and accountability while fostering a collaborative environment. 

Cross-functional teamwork and knowledge sharing should be the norm, making sure you keep an eye on the team’s dynamics and provide support and resources when they’re needed. 

Q: How can companies most effectively measure and report the success of their innovation strategies?

Catarina: Evaluating the success of innovation strategies is a crucial yet complex task. Companies, especially within life sciences, can achieve this through Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and thorough evaluation methodologies.

The choice of KPIs greatly depends on the specific goals and focus of the innovation strategy. Some popular KPIs for monitoring innovation success in pharma include:

  • Number of novel medication candidates
  • Clinical trial success rate 
  • Time-to-market for new medicines 
  • Revenue earned from new products
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Market share increases

When effectively chosen and monitored, these KPIs can illustrate the progress of a company's innovation strategy.

Q: What role do you see corporate entrepreneurship playing in the next 5-10 years?

Catarina: I think the role is set to transform over the next 5 to 10 years, becoming a central driver of success amidst changing market dynamics. Here are a few key trends to watch:

Integration of advanced technologies

Corporate entrepreneurship will be inextricably linked to new technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, data analytics, and next-generation computing. These tools will be used by businesses to promote innovation in a variety of areas, including product creation, customer experience, supply chain optimisation, and operational efficiency. 

Corporate entrepreneurship will be critical in finding and capitalising on these technologies.

A surge in strategic alliances and open innovation

Partnerships with startups, incubators, universities, industry experts, and others will become more prevalent, allowing businesses to tap into external innovation ecosystems, gather fresh ideas, and speed up innovation.

Strengthening human capital and capabilities

Companies will increasingly invest in ongoing learning and skill enhancement, fostering a culture of corporate entrepreneurship. This will involve mentorship programs and resources for employees, enabling them to tackle challenges, embrace ambiguity, and spearhead organisational innovation. 

Market trend monitoring

Regular analysis of market trends, customer needs, and competitive landscapes will be crucial. Market research and data analytics will help identify emerging opportunities and anticipate disruptions. Additionally, developing risk management procedures will be key to mitigating potential hazards.

Increased social and environmental impact

As a crucial engine of innovation, corporate entrepreneurship will increasingly embrace social and environmental impact. Companies will integrate their entrepreneurial activities with long-term development goals, focusing on developing answers to major global issues such as climate change, healthcare access, and inequality. This trend towards purpose-driven entrepreneurship will attract talent, resonate with customers, and help businesses succeed in the long run.

Companies that embrace these changes will be able to leverage the transformative potential of entrepreneurship to thrive in an increasingly dynamic and competitive business landscape.

Closing thoughts

We’d like to thank Catarina Santos for taking the time to share her insights with us and wish her every success in her continuing role at Novatis. Please note all the views and opinions expressed in this article reflect Catarina’s own perspective. 


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