Decoding Design

Q&A: Dennis Urbaniak, Vice President, Diabetes at Sanofi U.S.

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The head of the Diabetes team at Sanofi U.S. discusses lessons learned from hosting an open design competition to create easy-to-use disease-management apps.

Pharmaceutical giant Sanofi U.S. announced the winner of its U.S. Innovation Challenge: Data Design Diabetes on November 14, which also happened to be World Diabetes Day. The winning concept was Ginger.io, a mobile-device app that analyzes a user’s location and communication habits to track patterns and offer suggestions for improving health-related behavior. And along with the announcement came some valuable learnings on Sanofi's part, in terms of hosting an open design competition to scope out viable new product ideas. These lessons could apply to other corporations in the healthcare arena considering doing the same.

Dennis Urbaniak, Vice President, Diabetes at Sanofi U.S. (and previously the company's Vice President of Innovation and New Customer Channels) was one of the seven judges of Data Design Diabetes. I spoke with him about the power of design in creating new patient tools to help manage chronic diseases, as well as how the competition fits into the overall innovation strategy at Sanofi. Here's our edited conversation.

SmartPlanet: How did Sanofi first become inspired to explore design as part of a strategy to help create new interactive disease-management products for diabetes patients?

We're in the process of evolving our focus on being a total diabetes solution company. We have a long heritage in various innovation treatments. On a global level, the company made a commitment to broaden our focus because of the scope of diabetes. We saw that there's a need for comprehensive treatment. We wanted to look beyond the drug. We asked, what do people living with diabetes need to be more successful in managing the disease in day to day life? What tools do they need to help make decisions regarding their health?

So we looked at other industries to see how we could improve the experience of people living diabetes, beyond the drug. The importance of design really came through.

SP: Sanofi has created diabetes iPhone apps before, correct? Why focus again on apps for the design challenge?

We've gone down this path before in a small way, internally. We developed our Go Meals app. We saw a very strong response from doctors and patients. It's simple to use, and has been one of the App Store's most downloaded apps in the health category. But then the diabetes team here started looking at the intersection of technology, data, and information around the management of diabetes as well as the need to keep things simple.

Then we had the opportunity to connect with the team from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and learn about their health data initiative, we thought, this would be a great forum to work with open data sources and look to creative developers. So this led us to the design challenge, which we only announced in June.

We've been very happy about the speed with which we've been able to get this challenge up and down. We've also been very happy about the input we've gotten not only from the finalists, but also the broad variety of the many potential solutions we saw from all the entrants, too.

SP: Innovation and design experts often cite contests as efficient ways of discovering and encouraging inventive thinking. Why was hosting a competition around diabetes-management an appropriate match?

Because of the scope and prevalence of diabetes in the U.S., we have been spending lots of time with people living with diabetes, online and offline. We've seen significant gaps of what people need in terms of solutions and tools to help manage the disease. But we know from our work that there are many people doing a great job managing diabetes and are living successful lives. So the right tools can make a real difference.

What was interesting was that because this was focused through the developer community, we were able to work with people outside of the healthcare arena--and that included people who may not even have known anything about diabetes. We shared with them facts about the rate of increase in diabetes and what a significant crisis this is, as well as individual stories of people struggling to find simple disease-management tools to help them. This appealed to a broad range of developers. They seemed to really take to heart the idea that they could make a difference in a lot of people's lives, on a large scale.

SP: What lessons did your team at Sanofi learn from hosting Data Design Diabetes? Are there any design-competition tips you can give to other corporations in the healthcare arena?

We definitely learned a lot. We're still learning. This is one phase. The idea was to appeal to a different audience of collaborators, to see how they can bring forward different solutions.

We talk a lot about external innovation in science, which is important. But in some ways it may be more important on the commercial side, in terms of bringing in ideas that can scale. We saw solutions that we could never have come up with on our own. I think this resulted in better quality product.

As far as tips to other companies considering a similar design challenge, I would say you need to be clear of your role and your expectations. As a company, be transparent from beginning. We made it clear that we're a total diabetes company, committed to bring forward a full range of solutions from the start.

I would also advise to be open to what comes in. It was tough, though, to try to make decisions on finalists and winners. We had some great projects, and we will look at ways to continue to work with the entrants.

SP: How does the winning product, Ginger.io, exemplify the power of design in disease management?

The heart of the challenge was to design a data-driven product that could make a significant change in how someone lives with diabetes. It had to be human-centered, or simple and easy to integrate into a user's lifestyle.

That Ginger.io passively uses data--the user doesn't have to enter information--is incredibly interesting. There are few sophisticated examples of passive data-usage in the market today. Also, the concept demonstrated lots of potential to benefit people living with diabetes. From a design point of view, being able to engage with real people is very important! And of course, it's a product that can scale.

SP: Can Ginger.io serve as a model for other Sanofi products that could potentially help patients fighting other illnesses?

I think it absolutely can. We wanted to start with a targeted initiative with a real issue. This concept could quickly be applied to other chronic disease management, such as multiple sclerosis. There is lots of potential.

Right now, we definitely plan to do more challenges. We are still sifting through learnings and asking, how can we do a better job at this? How can we be more effective? My team has a very strong desire to work with external partners in this way. It's important to note that the developers drove it; the entrants met timelines with such high quality.  As far as timeframe for another design challenge, well, we don't know yet. But I can say that we're very anxious to move ahead.

Related on SmartPlanet:

Two new diabetes-management concepts worth watching

Image: Sanofi U.S.

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure