Sanofi Innovation Awards: the Power of Collaboration to Move Medicines Forward

Launched in the US three years ago, Sanofi’s Innovation Awards (iAwards) program is now expanding into Europe. Developed in response to the continuing rise of chronic diseases worldwide, the iAwards aim to promote scientific breakthroughs by tapping into the world’s greatest minds through close collaboration with renowned academic institutions.

Sridaran Natesan, Head of Strategic Initiatives and Scientific Relations, Sanofi North America and one of the founders of the program in the U.S., explains its importance:

Portrait of Sridaran Natesan, Head of Strategic Initiatives and Scientific Relations, Sanofi North America

“The program adds to and significantly expands our access to external innovation”

Sridaran Natesan, Head of Strategic Initiatives and Scientific Relations, Sanofi North America

Three Questions to Sridaran Natesan

Tell us more about the Innovation Awards program?

The iAwards program is an opportunity for Sanofi scientists to collaborate with top academic scientists engaged in highly innovative research and to quickly translate their discoveries into our early-stage pipeline projects.

We started with seven internationally recognized academic and medical centers in the US - Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, Columbia University, Cornell Medical Center, University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins Medical Center and University of Texas System. The program model appealed to our academic partners and us as a mutually beneficial scientific collaboration to bring innovative therapeutic solutions to patients.

The key outcome of the partnership is the delivery of innovative early-stage projects to fuel our pipeline; in the U.S. the program delivered eight projects to our early-stage portfolio in the first two years.

Over the last three years, we have received 600 pre-proposals from faculty members in the US, most of whom had no previous knowledge of Sanofi. We have funded 69 projects and closely worked with these investigators, paving the way for a longer-term relationship and access to these labs. Should these projects that are funded by the program become successful, they could generate potentially transformative therapies for patients.

How do the iAwards help Sanofi tap into the most innovative research?

The iAwards program is a good example of Sanofi’s open innovation approach. Its governance model provides greater flexibility to test the most promising and yet risky innovative ideas or ongoing research in academic labs. From my perspective, the iAwards program provides an additional opportunity for Sanofi R&D to interact with some of the best innovators in the world. More importantly, the program helps us to fully realize the benefits of network effects created through interactions.

We have received nearly 250 ideas every year since 2015, mostly from faculty members who are excited about moving their research from lab to clinic. As the program expands in the next two years, we expect to receive more than 1,000 submissions every year from institutions across the globe. Thus the program adds to and significantly expands our access to external innovation. Although, we only fund about 10% of proposals submitted to us, we do maintain our relationship with promising investigators so that they come to us when they have their next best idea.

What does the future hold for the iAwards program?

We started the iAwards program in the US as a pilot and based on the outcomes from the first few years, we consider that it is a successful initiative. Team work and strong engagement from our R&D leadership is an important contributor to its success. On the academic partner side, although the iAwards funding level is relatively small, the leadership in the participating institutions recognized the long-term value of this program and the strong commitment from Sanofi to advance projects to the clinic if they continue to meet the scientific requirements.

By the end of this year, we expect the participating academic institutions in North America iAwards program to increase to 18 institutions, including three from Canada. We launched the European iAwards program last year with 12 leading institutions in France and Germany and are currently negotiating with our partners to extend this program to Israel and the UK next year. By 2020, we envision the iAwards program being truly global, having access to innovation in top tier academic institutions in North America, Europe, Middle East and Asia. The program has met our expectations, but the real impact will only be realized when it delivers programs that enter into the clinical development phase, an important milestone that I am sure we will achieve in the coming years.

Infographic about the iAwards in the United States

Testimonials from our U.S. partners

Ira Tabas, Professor of Anatomy & Cell Biology

Jonathan A. Epstein, Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer

Portrait of Isabelle Thizon de Gaulle, Vice President European Strategic Initiatives & Scientific Relations

“After its success in the US, the extension of the iAwards in Europe was the obvious next step”

Isabelle Thizon, Vice President European Strategic Initiatives & Scientific Relations, R&D, Strategy, Science Policy & External Innovation

Why did you expand the iAwards to Europe and can you tell us more about the projects you received?

Europe is a core region for biomedical research due to the number of academic centers of excellence and also Sanofi’s R&D footprint since about half of our scientific teams are based in France and Germany. Proximity is critical to facilitate and nurture collaborations with external partners. After its success in the US, the extension of the iAwards in Europe was the obvious next step. We launched the program in November 2017 and included the top 12 academic centers in France and Germany with research team experts in areas that correspond to our therapeutic areas.

The result was really impressive: we received 189 high quality proposals in all therapeutic areas, which made it challenging for the Joint Scientific Steering Committee, composed of academics and Sanofi scientists, to select the winning projects. They chose 19 projects in Oncology, Immunology and Inflammation, Neuroscience, Cardiovascular Diseases and Diabetes for this first edition.

As scientists, our common DNA and passion is to understand the complexity of biology in order to deliver innovative treatments to patients. Unlike a few years ago, it is now unimaginable for academic and industrial teams to work separately. Our common responsibility is to do everything we can to address the unmet medical needs and scientific challenges. The iAwards program is a really new concept, a first of its kind, a stepping-stone initiative bringing together multiple academic research institutions as partners at the earliest stages of drug discovery. A new era in biomedical collaboration for the benefit of patients has begun.

Infographic about the launch of the iAwards program in Europe

Testimonials from our European partners

Dr. Rolf Zettl, Administrative Director of the Berlin Institute of Health

Pascale Augé, Chairman of the Executive Management Board of Inserm Transfert

Infographic of the European academic centers participating in the iAwards program