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Christian Macher of Novartis Canada
Christian Macher
Country President and Oncology General Manager - Novartis Canada
Part of the Spotlight on Montreal’s AI for Health Sector

Montreal as a Hub for Health AI

Takeaways

  1. Montreal’s thriving AI ecosystem is a key factor for why health science and pharmaceutical companies establish operations here.
  2. Montreal and Canada’s policies on immigration make it a hotbed for the attraction of global talent.
  3. Academic support for innovations in the health sciences and in artificial intelligence is widespread in Montreal.

Action

The world is seeing artificial intelligence and the health sciences come together to develop new innovations that could prove critical for the betterment of society. Establishing innovation and research hubs in supportive cities like Montreal will be crucial for the progress of these developments.


Why is artificial intelligence important for the future of our global approach to health? 

We are at a critical and unique juncture where science, technology, and data are coming together in really exciting and new ways, and this will help us to develop new medicines but also work smarter. We recognize within Novartis that we do not want to do this alone; we want to do this with partners in collaboration, and this is why we committed to develop a network, which is called the Biome, with digital innovation hubs across the planet. We are committed to going beyond the traditional pharmaceutical model to find creative solutions for the benefit of patients. With our choices in placing these Biomes, we have to be very strategic. We started in the heartland of San Francisco and now have one in Paris, London, Hyderabad, and most recently, in Montreal. 


What applications of artificial intelligence in health are you most excited about? 

I will give you three examples. The applications of AI in health I am most excited about are the ones that go beyond the treatment. The first is a partnership with a Canadian virtual care specialist company called Insig. They have launched a digital health accelerator, which provides the tools to make the virtual care of healthcare professionals (HCPs) easier. This is what we call tailored medicine.  

“The applications of AI in health I am most excited about are the ones that go beyond the treatment.” 

Another great partnership I would like to highlight is called Amblyotech, which is a digital therapeutic company that works in collaboration with Ubisoft, the gaming company, and McGill University to develop video therapy to treat lazy eye.  

The last thing I would like to mention is an initiative which is from the people and for the people. It was developed by a patient who is helping to meet the needs of people with disabilities. She created an app called AccessNow. She lives with muscular dystrophy and she understands the challenges of people living in a wheelchair. She made an app that uses crowdsourcing to share the accessibility of locations across the planet to make the lives of the disabled a little bit easier. 


What are Canada and Montreal’s competitive advantages when it comes to artificial intelligence for health?   

Let me start with a view of Canada first. As a country, Canada has all the ingredients to make a centre for innovation health and AI. That is why we are very excited about the potential and why we opened this Biome here. Canada is a very developed economy; it has a strong healthcare system, a world-class education system, and a well-respected institutional set-up in health research. We see this throughout the country with hubs in Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton. Furthermore, it is also part of the political agenda, as often said by Minister Navdeep Bains, with the ambition to make Canada a hotspot for AI. Our decision to place the Biome in Montreal was largely driven by the thriving AI ecosystem we found in the city. 


What are the strengths and weaknesses of Montreal’s artificial intelligence for health ecosystem? 

Montreal historically has been a hotspot in the last century for many innovative pharmaceutical companies as well as other reputable health infrastructures such as two leading medical schools, McGill and Université de Montréal. In the past 15 years, the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (Mila) has been stepping up to the plate with its global leader, Yoshua Bengio, an A.M. Turing Award winner, which is often referred to as the Nobel Prize for machine learning. This all comes together here and the future is extremely promising. In collaboration with Mila and the Biome, we want to facilitate and work within this ecosystem to find new solutions for patients. 


How would you describe Montreal’s talent and training ecosystem? 

We find a very strong talent base in Montreal and it is already attracting a lot of people from the entrepreneurial sector and health field, and it is also driven by the long history in health research. Around 70,000 people work with AI in startups, companies, academia, or in other types of outlets to find the connection between AI and healthcare. There is an opportunity to further build on that. Our mission should be to connect big global corporations with the local ecosystem. These facilities, such as the one that we set up, give us the opportunity to help talented people pursue their ideas and make them work for the globe but also be fully embedded into the ecosystem. We hope that we can inspire, with this collaboration, the world and Canada with our location here in Quebec. 

“Our mission should be to connect big global corporations with the local ecosystem.” 

It comes down to the attraction of Montreal as a city and as an environment. I can speak from my own experience—Montreal is a unique, large, and predominantly French city in North America, and it traditionally has been a bridge between the continents of North America and Europe. This multicultural population is big, not only between North America and Europe, but also with a connection to other regions like Asia. The attraction is there. Also, in terms of immigration, I am not aware that there are any roadblocks. When I hear the federal and the provincial ministers speak, they really make this a priority. There is all the help and infrastructure there to make immigration happen.  

In terms of institutions, we are really well set up and that is why we put our Biome here. We want to make our Montreal Biome a global centre for the planet and so far, we are running into open doors. 

“We want to make our Montreal Biome a global centre for the planet.” 

I am a big fan of diversity. The more different people come together, the better the ideas that will be generated by this very diverse group. This is also a unique opportunity for us as Novartis to reflect the people that we employ. We want to make sure that reflects the societies that we serve. Montreal, and also Canada as a whole, has a pretty unique situation across the globe. That is also one of the reasons why we as a pharmaceutical industry are running many clinical trials here, because we have the ethnic diversity across the country in one location. Canada’s ethnic diversity allows us to run clinical trials with a multi-visibility of results. It is driving the diversity as a workforce, but also to do research in the clinic, Canada is very attractive. 


How would you pitch Montreal to other foreign investors when it comes to investing in AI for the health space? 

Montreal has a thriving artificial intelligence ecosystem, supported by world-class institutions in academia and research like Mila and Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM). There is a very big talent base and a welcoming framework from a provincial and governmental standpoint. Ultimately, it is a great place to live and all of these things coming together make it really attractive to set up shop in Montreal. 

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Christian Macher of Novartis Canada
Christian Macher
Country President and Oncology General Manager - Novartis Canada

Bio: Christian Macher is the Country President and Oncology General Manager at Novartis Canada. Previously, he was also the Director of the Board of Directors for Valence Discovery (formerly known as Montreal InVivo) and Innovative Medicines Canada. He also spent nine years with AstraZeneca, where he held various leadership positions, and was the Co-Chair of the Pharmaceutical Committee at the European Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan. He holds a doctorate in Organic Chemistry from ETH Zurich 

 

Organization Profile: Novartis is a global healthcare company based in Switzerland that provides solutions to address the evolving needs of patients worldwide. They use science-based innovation to address challenging healthcare issues, working to discover and develop breakthrough treatments and find new ways to deliver them to as many people as possible. Their global portfolio of patented medicines includes more than 50 key marketed products.