Digital Vision: A conversation with Martin Dubuc

Meet Martin D​ubuc.

The head of Biogen Digital Health (BDH), Martin is happily married, has an 11-year-old daughter, and lives near Paris. Martin is among a growing number in the life sciences industry who believes that the exponential progress and convergence of technologies will open opportunities for digital health to transform healthcare. The industry, he says, is on the cusp of a revolution—a digital shift that promises to transform patient empowerment and care.

Martin was named head of the newly created BDH, reporting to Biogen’s CEO, in April 2021, and has been with Biogen since 2016—first as Senior Vice President of Customer Innovation and Commercial Excellence, and later as General Manager of the Biogen France affiliate and head of Biogen Healthcare Solutions.

Martin Dubuc, Head of Biogen Digital Health

An engineer by training, he says he “fell into" the life sciences in the early 2000s when he took a job as a project manager at Pfizer.

Ever since then, I've been fascinated with the industry and its deep meaning and purpose," he says. "And I've especially grown interested in transformations in our industry related to digital and customer centricity and the promise of technology to find solutions for patients with difficult diseases.

For Martin, Biogen is focused on a domain of "massive, unmet need." Unlike most companies in the pharmaceutical arena, he notes, Biogen is working on developing breakthrough innovations in neuroscience, and there is tremendous opportunity to be part of a company that continues to grow and is going places where others have never been.”

 

Digital innovations that transform lives

The team at BDH, Martin says, is an international and interdisciplinary team of over 150 experts focusing on four domains: digital biomarkers, personalized healthcare, care pathway solutions and digital therapeutics.

This means they use digital health technologies—everything from sensors and digital devices to artificial intelligence (AI)—combined with big health data to change the way neurological diseases are screened, detected, monitored and managed, ultimately enabling patients to become more active participants in their disease journeys.

“The way a neurological disease affects individual patients varies significantly, and this variability also applies to the way they respond to different drugs and interventions,Martin says. “Understanding and supporting decisions based on these differences is key to improve health outcomes."

He added that these solutions will often rely on data science algorithms that integrate on massive amounts of multi-modal longitudinal data (passive monitoring, active assessments, omics, imaging, etc) from randomized clinical trials and real-world research networks.

But personalized medicine, particularly in neurology, will also depend on our ability to research and develop digital biomarkers, he says. BDH aims to do this by leveraging popular digital technologies like smartphones, sensors and wearable devices, which can provide a wide range of physiological and behavioral data signals.

Ali Neishabouri and Lionel Marty in the Biogen Digital Health team working with a Robotic Arm to test different devices and validate algorithms.

The hope is to create algorithms that can transform the signals into scientifically validated models and scores to help healthcare professionals and individuals to better monitor and manage neurological diseases. This requires the expertise of scientists, clinicians, biostatisticians and engineers who will use these signals in order to generate more granular, objective and regular measures of neurological diseases. This has the potential to be tremendously impactful in research for therapies for diseases like Parkinsons but also in helping clinicians assess the true evolution of neurodegenerative diseases of their patients, he explains.

The team is also seeking to advance the field of digital therapeutics, where technologies are used as evidence-based medical interventions to generate biological reactions. “For example, there is scientific evidence of the potential of using virtual reality to help alleviate pain and anxiety,” he says. In neurology in particular, the very fact that the human brain can form and reorganize synaptic connections in response to an experience, known as neuroplasticity, means that there is unique potential for digital solutions to help meet patients' needs as standalone or in combination with therapies.

“As pioneers in neuroscience it’s important to consider how together, biology and technology can help meet patients’ needs,” Martin says.

 

Unlocking the potential of digital health

Before coming to Biogen, Martin says he'd never worked for a company where people from such diverse professional backgrounds were working so closely together. And this philosophy of unlocking the power of convergence across disciplines, backgrounds and culture to innovate is key for BDH. “Our team is made up of people who came here from academia, from the clinical world, from tech companies, from devices companies, from medical affairs, from consumer digital companies, etc. All working together in an integrated way. At most other places, those areas are all siloed—everyone is focused on their own domains. To me the potential of digital health will be even greater if integrated across a life science company from research and development to patients.”

The culture at Biogen does not allow for that kind of isolation Martin says. For BDH this means creating a culture that encourages and supports communication and collaboration. “Since I started, we've spent a lot of time as a team reflecting on what our culture should be." BDH lives by agile principles," he adds, “which means the way we manage, the way we operate, the way we communicate, and the speed and transparency at which we work—it can all be a little surprising for people when they first join us because we are part of a large organization. But this is based on our core belief that the convergence of knowledge and technology can allow us to answer questions that isolated capabilities and disciplines cannot.”

Martin speaking at a team conference

 

With that in mind, Martin says he tries to ensure those who come to BDH are the type to thrive in such an environment. “To fit in here, I like to say that you have to be a missionary and not a mercenary, you need to understand that it's not just about individual expertise or ego; it's about how the collective succeeds. We look to hire extremely smart people, but at the same time, they have to be people who can put their egos aside, start from the first principles, be part of a team, building on each other's knowledge and expertise to create something new. As leader of the team, it is a continuous priority to foster a high energy, positive, working atmosphere and having fun together.”

When they do, Martin notes, “anything is possible,and in the short time he's led the division he's already seen a string of successes that bode well for the future. “We have so many groundbreaking projects going on, such a broad portfolio of initiatives, and the amazing thing is how we're making progress and accelerating our momentum collectively."

The work has been challenging, he admits, but he knew that it would be when he took the job. “My personality is not one that stops at challenges; the harder it gets, the more motivated I am to make it happen. So, I really believe, as the saying goes, that the obstacles you face become the way. Digital transformation in the life sciences isn't easy, yet it has potential to have a meaningful impact on healthcare and that's really the reason why I'm here.”

"If we're going to break through and do things in digital health that have never been done before, there is no better place than Biogen to make it happen."