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How Eli Lilly’s CEO Sees AI Changing the Pharma Landscape

The world of pharmaceuticals and biotech has started embracing artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance its operations, facilitate drug development, and make life easier for employees. Some biotech firms are already trying out AI-developed drugs on patients. Digital health companies, along with providers and insurers, are exploring ways to use AI tools like ChatGPT to expedite tasks such as patient assessment and medical note transcription while ensuring patient safety and privacy.

At the forefront of this revolution is Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical giant, led by CEO David Ricks. He envisions AI as a game-changer that could disrupt his industry. Ricks is of the opinion that AI is “one of the most exciting technological moves” he has witnessed in his career, ranking it alongside the iPhone and the advent of the internet.

With a market capitalization surpassing $420 billion and successful treatments for diabetes and cancer under its belt, Eli Lilly has begun to invest in a wide array of AI-centric projects. Lilly’s strategic investment areas include drug discovery, natural-language generation, robotic-process automation, and chatbots.

Lilly aims to expand its “digital worker-equivalent workforce,” a concept encapsulating the hours saved by deploying technology over human labor. Lilly’s tech initiatives, spanning over 100 projects since 2022, have been equated to roughly 1.4 million hours of human activity or around 160 continuous years of work. Lilly’s ambitious goal is to take this number up to 2.4 million hours, approximately 274 years, by year’s end.

Ricks highlighted three major ways he sees Lilly and the broader biopharma industry utilizing AI.

Firstly, AI could handle mundane, initial steps in tasks such as contract production or basic administrative work. Rather than replacing entire roles, it’s about enhancing human productivity by tackling the simplest problems first.

Secondly, with the industry under stringent regulatory scrutiny, AI could help automate repetitive business processes. As Ricks elaborates, textual generative AI tools like ChatGPT could expedite document production that contributes to the regulatory system, rather than directly benefiting the patient.

Finally, Ricks sees AI playing a significant role in drug development. Using AI, ideas that may otherwise elude human chemists could be generated from a given dataset. Recently, Lilly announced a $250 million partnership with pharmaceutical tech company XtalPi to discover new potential drugs using AI.

Ricks believes that AI helps “funnel wide” in the discovery process. Unlike humans who tend to stick to known paths, AI doesn’t follow this pattern. It uses every bit of available data, leading to the creation of constructs beyond human conception. These constructs may not be an immediate drug, but they provide a “new white space” or a starting point for chemists to develop new drugs.

In Ricks’ view, AI’s impact will be a “breakthrough”, massively transforming workplace productivity. It will allow individuals to focus on more valuable and stimulating tasks, thereby revolutionizing the industry in the near term.