Guerbet’s Chief Digital Officer, François Nicolas, on steering a 95 year old company from manufacturing radiology agents to developing AI solutions

In 1901, French pharmacist and toxicologist Marcel Guerbet discovered Lipiodol, the first iodinated X-ray contrast agent that became widely used to outline human body structures in radiological investigations. Twenty five years later, his son, André Guerbet, founded a pharmaceutical company, giving it the family name and specializing in the manufacturing and selling of contrast agents and solutions for diagnostic and interventional medical imaging.

Ninety five years later, the company still stands strong, based on the outskirts of Paris with more than 2700 employees worldwide. But it’s moved on in ways Marcel and Andre Guerbet could never imagine. In 2018, Guerbet signed a joint development agreement with IBM Watson Health to develop AI solution-supporting liver cancer diagnosis and care. A year later, the conglomerate announced a second co-development project which continued to leverage AI to detect, segment, characterize, and monitor lesions over time for a faster and more substantial diagnosis of prostate cancer.

François Nicolas, Guerbet’s Chief Digital Officer, feels the strategic collaboration was a necessary step to build a portfolio of new products for Guerbet to grow into a new space. “One of the reasons we chose IBM Watson Health as our partner is because they are very open in helping us grow our digital and AI competencies,” he says. “Guerbet has a long history in radiology, related agents and medical devices. Thus, we are clearly serious about long term growth.” As such, rather than thinking whether they are a part of Guerbet or IBM Watson Health, expertise was recruited into the partnership on a project basis, to facilitate quick and efficient learning and transparency.

“In the process, Guerbet not only learnt about developing an algorithmic prototype but also processes that make it robust and scalable on a global basis and approved by various regulatory agencies,” Nicolas adds.

Transformation requires a lot of experiences and it cannot take place overnight but Nicolas feels Guerbet has positioned itself well in this digital era. “We recognized there is a big wave of innovation getting into radiology but we have also introduced meaningful changes to help our clients improve their practices over the year. We have a good understanding of what radiology is about on a global basis; what radiologists are afraid of, their clinical needs and so on. We feel we can build upon these while learning a new form of technology or a new set of skills”.

Nevertheless, taking a 95-year-old company into the 21st century can still be challenging at times. “Think about it,” says Nicolas. “You have your current business to sustain, to grow, to monitor and to focus on. But while you are doing that, there are some new, rigorous processes taking shape. It’s obliging two cultures.

“I feel fortunate as a Chief Digital Officer here at Guerbet. The freedom I enjoy at work makes me feel like I am leading a small startup, albeit with a global reach. My work is fluid; I don’t need to go through too many committees to get things approved and that quickens the decision-making process. However, since this is not a startup, it can’t stand the same level of high risk, so we are very rigorous about where we invest. I also have to align with managers from our local offices who may have many conflicting priorities, yet who bring huge value by being implanted in their local businesses”.

The ongoing hype has made AI a relatively competitive space, and Nicolas is determined to keep Guerbet a cut above the rest. “We are not trying to do everything but we are trying to do everything well. From understanding clients’ needs, bringing medical values, to strong validation and fitting seamlessly into the workflow, what we want is to build upon the company’s credibility within radiology. We want to be a credible company regardless of how technology has evolved, I think that’s the key to developing Guerbet in the 21st century”.