R&D AI adoption in Pharmaceutical Industry

The hurdles to fully embracing AI

The pharmacological industry is a highly regulated industry where patient safety is of utmost importance. Even the slightest errors can cause harm to patients and can badly damage the company’s reputation. It comes as no surprise that big pharma companies are somewhat skeptical of the adoption of AI in their development process (1).

One of the most important challenges of using AI in pharma R&D are related to data availability and data quality, rather than higher-level tasks such as choosing the most appropriate algorithms or putting AI model to production (2).

The usual path that big pharma companies currently take is partnering with AI specialized companies on specific jobs (3). So, the jobs are outsourced and this new approach can be tested in a cost-effective manner.

Some of the recent examples are:

  • In May 2021 Exscientia has signed an AI-drug discovery deal with Bristol-Myers Squibb with $50 million upfront payment, plus $125 million for near-term successes, and $1.2 bln if the FDA approval is reached. The collaboration is focused on finding new small-molecule drugs across cancer and autoimmune conditions.

  • In January 2021 BenevolentAI And AstraZeneca achieved a collaboration milestone with a novel AI-generated chronic kidney disease target.

  • In January 2020 Bayer entered into a collaboration agreement with artificial intelligence drug discovery company Exscientia to identify and optimize novel lead structures for potential drug candidates in treating cardiovascular and oncological diseases.

However, some indicators shows that big pharma companies are moving towards fully embracing AI

  • AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer, and Teva Pharmaceutical are contributing to an initiative called AION Labs to invest in startups focused on applying AI and computational biology to bring discovery and development to a new level (4).

  • About 90% of large pharmaceutical firms initiated AI projects last year, according to the US research firm Trinity Life Sciences. AstraZeneca and GSK, Britain’s two biggest drugmakers, committed in November to a five-year partnership with Cambridge University to fund the Cambridge Centre for AI in Medicine. (5).

  • From October 2020 to September 2021 monthly AI job postings are, with some fluctuations, steadily around 2% of all job postings (6). Measured by the number of mentioned artificial intelligence in company filings and the number of advertised new artificial intelligence, Merck, Roche, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson are possible future leaders in the adoption of AI in the pharmaceutical industry (7). They are closely followed by Bayer and Sanofi.


  1. https://www.europeanpharmaceuticalreview.com/article/107772/optimising-artificial-intelligence-in-the-pharmaceutical-industry/
  2. https://www.pda.org/pda-letter-portal/home/full-article/getting-closer-to-ai-adoption-in-the-pharmaceutical-industry
  3. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03846-0
  4. https://medcitynews.com/2021/10/four-big-pharma-companies-team-up-in-ai-initiative-focused-on-drug-rd/
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/feb/20/drug-companies-look-to-ai-to-end-hit-and-miss-research
  6. https://www.pharmaceutical-technology.com/features/revealed-the-pharma-companies-leading-the-way-in-artificial-intelligence/
  7. https://www.pharmaceutical-technology.com/features/ai-hiring-levels-in-the-pharmaceutical-industry-dropped-in-september-2021/

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