Interview with Eli Lilly CEO: Artificial intelligence is set to transform the pharmaceutical and biotech sector

David Ricks, CEO of Eli Lilly.
Eli Lilly

  • Biotech and pharmaceutical companies are considering how AI could improve their businesses.
  • The Eli Lilly CEO said he expects AI to massively change workplace productivity.
  • The pharmaceutical giant is investing in AI, machine learning and automation.
  • This story is part of “What’s Next?”, a series in which we ask CEOs of leading companies across industries how rapidly changing trends are affecting their approach to leadership.

The pharmaceutical and biotech industry has already started using AI to improve the way they operate, develop medicines, and ultimately make things easier for their employees.

A handful of biotech companies are testing AI-developed drugs on people. Meanwhile, digital health companies, providers and insurers are grappling with using technologies including ChatGPT to expedite tasks such as patient assessments and completing medical notes, while maintaining the security and privacy of their patients.

According to David Ricks, CEO of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, the technology has the potential to turn the industry upside down. Eli Lilly is developing dozens of drugs through clinical trials and expects to make more than $30 billion in revenue this year.

Ricks told Insider that AI is “one of the most exciting tech moves” he’s seen in a long time.

“I can only think of two other things in my adult life that could compete with it,” Ricks said. “One of them was an iPhone, and another was when we started viewing the internet.”

Eli Lilly has a market value of over $420 billion and sells successful treatments for diabetes and cancer. It has already started investing in a number of AI-focused projects. A company spokesperson said Lilly is investing in artificial intelligence and machine learning in areas such as 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 the company says helps quantify the hours saved by using technology instead of human labor. Lilly said his efforts, which began in 2022 and now span more than 100 projects, are equivalent to about 1.4 million hours of human activity, or about 160 years of 24/7 work.

Lilly told Insider that her goal is to bring that number up to 2.4 million hours, or about 274 years, by the end of the year. Lilly declined to say how much he has invested in the initiative.

Three ways Lilly wants to use AI

Ricks said he sees three main ways Lilly and the broader biopharma space could use AI.

Initially, the technology could perform the first worldly steps in tasks such as contract manufacturing or the mechanical parts of administrative work.

“I think the most short-term application of these won’t be to replace the roles of entire people, but rather to increase human productivity and start with the simplest problems,” he said. “I think it will 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 text AI tools like GPT Chat, because we can teach them what to do with our data, and it can help people produce documents much faster that don’t actually create value for the patient they’re doing. contributing to the regulatory system,” Ricks said.

The ultimate use case would be drug development, according to Ricks. An AI model could produce ideas based on a dataset that chemists probably wouldn’t have been able to see or visualize. In May, Lilly announced a $250 million partnership with pharmaceutical technology company XtalPi to discover potential new drugs using artificial intelligence.

“In a discovery process, you want to widen the funnel,” Ricks said. “In the past, maybe humans only thought about the things they already knew. The machine didn’t. It just knows everything that was there and comes up with constructs that humans just don’t know about.”

That construct is a long way from becoming a real drug, Ricks said, but what it does do 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 will change workplace productivity enormously, and as a result, people will be spending time on more interesting and valuable things in the short term,” she said.

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