Sheila Babnis on Co-Creating with Employees and Patients in Drug Trials

Sheila Babnis, head of strategic innovation for product development at Roche, shared, at the Front End Innovation conference earlier this year, new ways that her company is working in innovation in drug development; and how empathy and patient-centricity are shaping both drug development and clinical trials. Co-creating with patients is a core pillar of the new way Roche is working and an area of deep focus for Sheila and her team.

During the conference, attendees were curious to learn more about this exciting journey. I asked Sheila to “take us back” to when Roche’s innovation journey in patient co-creation began. Here Sheila recalls:


“The perfect storm was brewing in healthcare, and external factors were changing the landscape we had known for so long. The pace of change and use of technology were accelerating; health care costs were skyrocketing; patients and doctors were empowering themselves and becoming more vocal participants in health and wellness; and payers and governments were shifting their views on drug priorities and value.

The world was changing all around us. And we had not really changed how we designed and developed drugs in a long time. It became clear that if we wanted to keep our edge – that is, to stay valuable, relevant, and ahead of the curve – we had to change our way of working. And so, we began looking at our business from multiple perspectives, starting with the patient.

We decided to go beyond listening to the voice of patients in our drug development efforts. We decided to co-create.

As Sheila shared her story, we learned that to do so, the strategic innovation leadership team took action in two areas:

  1. Influencing and revamping how the organization approached new drug development work at Roche, and in particular the Product Development organization, by bringing the outside in and using human centered design.
  2. Reaching out and working with others in new ways to co-create the future of healthcare and medicine – building what Roche Innovator in Residence, Ayelet Baron, coined a “Connected Network.”


Sheila shared with us that ”These ideas were not necessarily revolutionary but really helped a big company like ours move faster and accelerate the impact we’re having in the world and society.”

First, they reached out internally to their own Product Development employees around the world. They knew they needed to make this change together.  Leaders recognized it didn’t have all the answers. They wanted more diversity in thought and perspective so they shifted to an ‘inside out’ perspective. As a result, the Strategic Innovation team began designing their first crowdsourcing campaign to help solve three big challenges:

  1. How do we access information better?
  2. How do we think differently about our patients?
  3. And, how do we stay current?

The response was truly overwhelming: 500 ideas and 10,000 votes.  They picked three big ideas to work on:

  1. Creating an environment that makes it simple and easy to do our work
  2. Finding new ways to work with patients and bringing the trials to them
  3. Setting up a HUB that enables the creation of an environment where we can regularly test new ideas and concepts

Crowdsourcing ideas and engaging employees directly, led to a shift in the organization. Sheila described, in her talk, how it facilitated getting great ideas out, testing them and engaging in new ways of working.  A great example of integrating high impact ideas was working with patients like Sean, a Crohn’s patient who joined their Advisory Board. (will link to past IX blog)

At the same time that they reached out to employees, they also looked outside and talked to other companies; they learned to ask for help and seek unusual partners.  The team used an Open Innovation Platform to engage with patients, and other solution seeker and finders; they created channels for real time advice from physicians – even sharing their intellectual property in some cases – all of which were unprecedented in our industry.”


Through Design Labs and the HUB, they gained insights that helped improve trial design and increased their ability to listen and demonstrate value of co-creation. “We are using Design Thinking to increase our empathy and really understand our stakeholders’ needs, building new relationships with regulators, payers and physicians, and keeping our decisions focused on patients.”

The teams are tackling some of the most pressing issues their patients have identified, such as ease of patient participation, bringing trials to them and using new ways, including biosensors and apps, to support and enable them to maintain and manage their healthcare experience. By listening, they have refined their goal as “conduct quick, cost-effective experiments, learn from them, share the knowledge, and iterate our process so that it becomes standard practice of care and clinical studies.”


Not surprisingly, Sheila acknowledged, “The culture change has been the toughest part of the journey.” Trying to bring change about in an environment where people are already successful is never easy. People understand that the world is changing but it’s never easy to create a common understanding of what innovation means to each person and help them make the change.

To tackle this major shift, Sheila and her executive team looked at what new behaviors were needed in their organization and called out risk taking, fostering creativity, courage, and innovation. They also set up a recognition and reward program to highlight the ways teams were changing the way they work. This program helped reinforce the new behaviors and created a common language around what it means to be innovative in drug development.

Roche has always been a leader in medicine. Today, they are a key part of changing the course of medicine. In 2013 alone, they had more than 65 teams across the company trying out different innovations, doing things differently. They have given out over 200 awards to teams and individuals. And they regularly follow up by sharing their impact and their stories.


Sheila shared that there has been a shift; “we are excited that we are meeting unmet medical needs; after all, each of us can become a patient at any time.” The results speak for themselves as the team, under her leadership helped achieve the following results:

  • Incubated a portfolio of over 50 solutions resulting in 5 major changes in how business was done.
  • Built a network of over 100 innovators across the company.
  • Evaluated and oversaw external collaborations (consortiums, private and public sector programs) to sustain industry leadership and increase organizational capacity. With the business in one two and half years, doubled the pipeline of innovation solutions to improve clinical trials, increased efficiency and reduced the cost of drug development greater than 10%.
  • Drove adoption of innovative approaches resulting in 50% of molecule teams using one or more new tools and 117 greater than 50% of teams implementing proven or adhoc solutions in one year.
  • Leveraged 21st century leadership practices including working out loud (reduced time spent in meetings by 50%), virtual teaming (accelerated decision-making by 75%), and enterprise collaboration platforms (built trusted communities and improved communication supporting an increased employee satisfaction score of 20% in less than 24 months). Increased productivity by 10% in less than a year by catalyzing new ways of working and implementing a human-centered approach to work.


Sheila ended by turning her talk into a ‘bully pulpit’ for co-creation, for greater empathy and engagement. In her passionate words:

“The bottom line is that we are all patients at one time.  We are all “Sean.” We are all consumers of healthcare. And we need your help. We need you to get involved.  To take action. To reach out, educate and empower yourself. Join digital wellness communities. There are limitless new resources available for all healthcare issues. Websites like,, and (note we’ll hyper link to these)  give you knowledge and access to support systems, tips, tools, and cutting edge clinical trials close to you if you or someone you love gets sick. Test and try things out. Your involvement will give you the power to make informed decisions and benefit from critical, life-saving knowledge and opportunities. As a consumer we want to ensure that your voices are heard, and that pharmaceutical companies to help us take into account your individual needs and experiences.”

Sheila ended on a personal note, underscoring that everyone who works in big Pharma is also a person with healthcare needs. “Last year I helped my sister in law, diagnosed with a rare cancer, access a Roche clinical trial. Today she is cancer free, which is short of a miracle. Information is out there, you just have to dig in, get connected and seek it out.

No one can do this alone. We are all part of the healthcare challenge. And part of the solution. It is the perfect time for co-creation where listening and empathy skills are so needed.

Transcribed from a talk given at the Front End of Innovation, May 2014

image credit: Roche

Julie Anixter is the executive editor and co-founder of Innovation Excellence. She also serves as the Chief Learning Officer for RELEVENTS and Executive in Residence for the Disruptor Foundation. The co-author of three books, she’s working on a fourth on the next innovators. She worked with Tom Peters for 5 years on bringing big ideas to big audiences. Now she works with the Healthcare, Education, Manufacturing, the Military and other high test innovation cultures that make a difference. You can follow her @julieanixter

Julie Anixter




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