Cloud computing illustrated

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The meteoric rise of the AI sector is hard to fathom. Projections from Precedence Research suggest that the global AI market could balloon by 2600% from 2022 to 2032, hitting $1.87 trillion — an annual growth rate of 39%.

In pharma, AI and data science demand is surging though overall growth is sluggish. Despite advances such as the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines, the broader sector has struggled to keep up with the overall stock market. But the future could tell a different story. McKinsey projects that the pharma and medical products sector could gain 9% in EBITDA from cloud computing.

To tap this potential, cloud vendors are allying with pharma companies. “Nine of the top 10 pharma companies in the world have a large majority of the workloads running on AWS,” noted Tehsin Syed, general manager of AWS Health. These workloads encompass diverse areas including IT infrastructure, business operations and drug discovery. “There is quite a bit of adoption of cloud technologies within pharma companies that we’re seeing,” Syed said.

AWS has the biggest market share in the overall cloud market. Notable pharma customers include Bristol-Myers Squibb, Gilead, Novartis and Moderna. Extending its partnerships in the sector, AWS joined AstraZeneca, Merck KGaA, Pfizer and Teva and Israel Biotech Fund in 2021 to establish the AION Labs innovation center dedicated to AI technologies and computational science in drug discovery and development.

The second biggest cloud player is Microsoft Azure, whose pharma clients include Bayer, Sanofi, Biogen and Johnson & Johnson.

Working backwards: A defining AWS principle

Tehsin Syed

Tehsin Syed

A cornerstone of AWS’s approach is the “working backwards” philosophy, propagated by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. This philosophy places the customer at the starting point, from which point AWS works backwards to fulfill their needs. According to Syed, this approach has been crucial in AWS’s pharma partnerships.

“In AWS, you know, our core approach is really to understand what are customer pain points,” Syed said. “What’s the outcome and value that they’re trying to achieve? And then how can we really, you know, remove those pain points and deliver that value with our technology.”

AWS’s focus is twofold: comprehending its customers’ challenges and goals while anticipating future technical advances to proactively meet customer’s needs. “This proactive approach means we’re always ready to provide the most cutting-edge capabilities,” Syed said.

Moderna and AWS: A pharma cloud case study

“If you consider the unexpected nature of events like the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that this was something no one could have predicted,” Syed said. Take Moderna, an existing AWS partner, as an example. Thrust into the battle against COVID-19, Moderna was able to tap into its already established AWS cloud resources, including machine learning capabilities and computational power. “This enabled Moderna to model the virus in just two days and develop a vaccine that interacted with it incredibly quickly,” Syed said.

In 2020, Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, underscored the role of the cloud during this period. “So once you figure out how to make it work once … then you can have a lot of new products come in very quickly and the return on investments is very spectacular because you don’t have to reinvent everything. You just fly,” he told CNBC.

Barbara Salami, vice president, digital for commercial at Moderna, touched on this approach AWS re:Invent 2022. She said, “Moderna aims to ‘push past possible.’” Salami added that the team, including its CEO, champions audacious ideas. “And we really start there and then we start to work backwards — because we believe that even if we don’t get to the moon, and we only hit 20% of our target, we will still be a billion times better” than if they hadn’t dared to aim so high.

Exploring the potential of cloud and AI in shaping pharma’s future

Line graph showing an increasing trend in the number of mentions of 'Artificial Intelligence' in the PubMed database publications from 1988 to 2022.

Trend of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ Mentions in PubMed Publications (1988-2022)

Ultimately, McKinsey predicts life science companies could gain $40 billion in EBITDA by 2030 using the cloud, improving IT, data and standardization to curb cost overruns.

“Pharma companies are turning quite a bit to the cloud to say, ‘Okay, this is really difficult to keep up with on premises. It’s bursty,’” Syed said. “And we really want the ability to have access to that compute to those GPUs to kind of that manage infrastructure.’”

AWS’s broader goal is to pinpoint high-impact areas where they can assist their customers, thereby removing the ‘undifferentiated heavy lifting.’ This strategy empowers customers to concentrate on their areas of expertise, with AWS handling the complex technological aspects. AWS’s approach embodies its commitment to promoting innovation and enabling customers to excel in their fields.

Despite currently holding the largest market share in the cloud market, AWS continues to focus on potential technological advances and building capabilities to meet future needs. Syed refers to this as “looking around corners on behalf of customers.”