- Biotech and pharma companies are evaluating how AI could make their businesses better.
- The CEO of Eli Lilly said he expects AI to massively change the productivity of the workplace.
- The pharma giant is investing in AI, machine learning, and automation.
- This story is part of “What’s Next?,” a series where we ask CEOs of prominent companies across industries about how rapidly evolving trends influence their approach to leadership.
The pharma-and-biotech industry has already begun to use artificial intelligence to improve how it operates, develops drugs, and ultimately makes things easier for employees.
A handful of biotech companies are testing AI-developed drugs in people. Meanwhile, digital-health companies, providers, and insurers are grappling with how to use technologies including ChatGPT to speed up tasks such as assessing patients and completing medical notes, while still maintaining the safety and privacy of their patients.
According to David Ricks, the CEO of the pharma giant Eli Lilly, the technology has the potential to upend the industry. Eli Lilly is developing dozens of drugs through clinical trials and expects to bring in more than $30 billion in revenue this year.
Ricks told Insider that AI is “one of the most exciting technological moves” he’s seen in a long time.
“I can only think of two other things in my adult life that would compete with it,” Ricks said. “One of them was an iPhone, and another was when we first started to visualize the internet.”
Eli Lilly has a market value of more than $420 billion, and sells blockbuster treatments for diabetes and cancer. It’s already begun to invest in a host of projects focused on AI. A spokesperson for the company said that Lilly is investing in artificial intelligence and machine learning in areas including drug discovery, natural-language generation, robotic-process automation, and chatbots.
The goal is to grow what Lilly calls its “digital worker-equivalent workforce,” a concept that the company says helps quantify the hours saved by using technology instead of human labor. Lilly said that its efforts, which began in 2022 and now span more than 100 projects, are equivalent to around 1.4 million hours of human activity, or around 160 years of 24/7 work.
Lilly told Insider its goal is to bring this number to 2.4 million hours, or about 274 years, by the end of the year. Lilly declined to say how much it’s invested in the initiative.
Three ways Lilly wants to use AI
Ricks said he sees three main ways Lilly and the larger biopharma space could use AI.
Initially, the technology could carry out the first mundane steps in tasks such as contract production or the rote parts of administrative work.
“I think the most near-term application of these isn’t going to be to replace whole people’s roles, but rather augment human productivity, and starting with the easiest problems,” he said. “I think it’ll happen quickly.”
Second, in an industry with intense regulatory oversight, AI could also help automate repetitive business processes.
“That’s a great target for some of the textual generative AI tools like Chat GPT, because we can teach it what to do on our data, and it can help people produce much faster documents that aren’t actually creating value for the patient — they’re contributing to the regulatory system,” Ricks said.
The final use case would be drug development, according to Ricks. An AI model could produce ideas based on a data set that chemists likely wouldn’t have been able to see or visualize. In May, Lilly announced a $250 million partnership with pharmaceutical-technology company XtalPi to uncover new potential drugs using AI.
“In a discovery process, you want to funnel wide,” Ricks said. “In the past, perhaps humans would just think of the things they already knew about. The machine doesn’t. It just knows about everything that was there and it comes up with constructs that humans just don’t.”
That construct is far from becoming an actual drug, Ricks said, but what it does is give the chemist a starting point, a “new white space,” that they can use to eventually develop a new drug.
“It’s a breakthrough and I think it’ll change the productivity of the workplace massively, and people will spend time on more interesting and valuable things as a result in the near term,” he said.
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