CNS Summit Innovation Index 2020

Written by Mike Rea — 2020-10-29.

The CNS Summit Innovation Index examines the effort and investment that pharmaceutical companies put into the pursuit of innovation and ranks them by the scale, potential impact, and 'innovativeness' (see below definition) of these efforts across three dimensions: digital, clinical trial optimization, and partnerships. Innovation in the index is defined as the novel use of technologies & processes to create greater value for an organization (either by improving efficiencies or effectiveness) that can be subsequently passed on to market customers, who can derive the value and benefit. In regards to this index, it is essential to note that innovation does not equal invention. Invention is the creation of something new, like a technology, which on its own has no inherent value. Innovation, on the other hand, is the novel use of inventions or processes to generate tangible value that did not previously exist.

Company performance, Top 10:

The CNS Summit Innovation Index, now in its fifth year, provides a systematic assessment of how pharmaceutical companies pursue innovation. The goal of the Innovation Index is to objectively assess the investments being made in innovation, encourage innovation, and allow companies to benchmark their innovation activities via an objective external source.

The key question we are asking is - given the same molecule, which company is best suited through digital, clinical and partnering practices to provide the most successful innovative solution?


Let’s explore our top ten to better understand some of the key drivers of innovation in the pharma industry…

Roche [1] 

Roche is a consistent top 10 performer, and this year it has demonstrated outstanding trial optimization scores, propelling the company into the top spot. Innovative partnerships and digital also contributed strongly.

Roche has continued to build a leading position in clinical diagnostics and precision medicine - which have served as the main drivers of their trial optimization performance. Examples of this include partnering with Illumina, a deal that could offer multiple opportunities to advance patient identification, big data utilization and harnessing of digital. Another example of Roche innovation is the FDA approval for FoundationOne Liquid CDx pan-tumour liquid biopsy test. The test offers a solution to sample acquisition challenges across multiple cancer types. Roche continued to push the innovation envelope forward with the launch of an automated digital pathology algorithm, increasing the speed and accuracy of non-small cell lung cancer diagnoses. In addition to these 2020 pursuits, Roche also developed diagnostic tools focused on early identification of disease in areas such as hepatocellular carcinoma and cervical cancer.

Roche also contributed to the fight against COVID-19 with two innovative adaptations of note. The organization worked towards developing a serology test for COVID-19 antibodies in April and then launched an antibody test in September to support the evaluation of vaccines.

In the digital space, we saw Roche’s AccuView SugarView app receive CE mark expanding their portfolio of blood glucose monitoring devices, the development of the COBAS platform -with the integration of a lab management app to aid in driving efficiency, data insights and quality control- and finally the development of a digital tool for the assessment of Multiple Sclerosis.

AstraZeneca [2]

Up three spots from last year- AstraZeneca just misses the top spot, landing at number 2 on this year’s CNS Innovation Index. 2020 marks the 4th year in a row that the British Pharma company has placed in the top 5.   

In line with previous years, AstraZeneca leads the ‘innovative partnerships’ category. Of note, and continuing on the trend from last year, were a swath of partnerships with companies focused on AI and data analytics. A few examples include partnerships with RenalytixAI, DeepMatter, and Eko. Each collaboration seeks to leverage data analytics and/or AI platforms to amplify the value AstraZeneca can deliver to patients.    

AstraZeneca also demonstrated continued commitment to investing in the future of digital healthcare, partnering and/or investing in a number of ‘incubation hubs’.  These deals included investments in numerous accelerator programs and/or direct collaborations with tech start-ups around the globe; including in, Israel, India, Singapore, China, Korea and other emerging markets. 

One collaboration in particular, between AZ and the company, Slush, will identify up and coming start-ups in emerging markets, providing them with a channel for support and mentorship. The unique partnership should help AZ connect to the next generation of start-ups - while also helping advance healthcare innovation across markets. 

In addition, the company also launched and leveraged a wide variety of small scale digital innovations, including mobile apps and digital platforms, that provided direct support for patients and clinical trial operations.

J&J [3]

J&J places 3rd overall this year, a significant resurgence after having not placed in the top 10 last year. Their effort was bolstered by a very strong trial optimization performance, second only to Roche, and by demonstrating a commitment to innovative partnerships and digital advances in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The company has been a critical player on the COVID-19 response through multiple initiatives from vaccine development, harnessing digital to address the now remote nature of trials, and investing in innovative start-ups. Aspiring for a leading role in the global vaccine race, J&Js has developed a strategic partnership with BARDA for the development of a ‘one-shot’ vaccine. This development has the potential to deliver the first batches of the pandemic-altering vaccination by early 2021 and puts J&J in a strong position in the COVID-19 vaccine race. In August, J&J and the US government agreed to supply 100 million doses of the investigational vaccine in preparation for a potential Emergency Use Authorisation from the FDA. This agreement could see an additional 200 million doses ordered under a subsequent agreement and represents an unprecedented challenge for manufacturing. To effectively prepare for this, J&J is actively building supply capacity - targeting the capability of delivering 1 billion doses per year. 

Beyond the vaccine program, J&J's digital responses to COVID-19 range from a predictive artificial intelligence partnership with BioSymetrics, to an online vaccine progress tracker to the ‘Health can’t wait’ campaign to aid patients reaching treatments for non-COVID-19 related illnesses.

Outside of COVID-19, significant digital partnerships this year have driven trial optimization, including the Heartline study alongside Apple (which utilizes the iPhones for health tracking in seniors), the collaboration for echocardiogram automation, the real-world data and the artificial intelligence agreement with Concerto HealthAI and the CHIEF-HF study which is the first completely decentralised, mobile, indication-seeking clinical study.

Pfizer [4]

After a huge jump to 2nd in last year’s rankings, Pfizer maintained its presence in the top 5, coming in at 4th in 2020. This maintenance of a high ranking for the company is attributable to top 10 finishes in each of the three categories of interest. 

Most of what kept Pfizer at a high spot in this year’s index was a continued commitment to acquiring and implementing the latest Artificial Intelligence (AI) and database technology. This broadening of technological horizons for Pfizer has allowed them to explore further innovation of trial design and attain fluid data and analytics in addition to a myriad of other new capabilities.

Pfizer’s commitment to further digital innovation is prevalent in their coming to new deals–and extending old ones as well–to learn as much as possible from current data. One example of Pfizer’s focus in AI is their deal with Saama technologies. This deal will see the use of Saama’s Life Science Analytics Cloud platform to obtain accurate data through machine learning. The upside of this deal could see a boom in the use of AI to speed up trials and ultimately get drugs to market faster. 

Additionally, in the AI area, Pfizer extended their 2019 agreement with Concerto HealthAI for the exploration of more disease areas. The original agreement was for the application of Real-World Data (RWD) to precision medicine in cancer, and the extension now sees the two companies collaborating in order to get more out of data in renal cell carcinoma and prostate cancer. The new deal also focuses on using RWD to create products with more immediate applications in non-interventional studies, which shows that the company is moving closer to using this data optimization in potential regulatory submissions.

Sanofi [5]

Sanofi just misses the podium again this year, slipping one spot from #4 in 2019 to the 5th  in 2020. This marks Sanofi’s 3rd consecutive year in the top 10; an impressive feat considering they finished 22nd in 2017.    

Sanofi put forth a concerted effort to leverage digital solutions, focusing primarily on methods to enhance value for patients and physicians (as opposed to internally facing).   

A stand out of their 2020 effort was Sanofi’s new partnership with Biocorp. 

The two are creating a connected cap* designed to attach to a range of Sanofi insulin pens, allowing patients to track insulin intake on a dedicated mobile app that syncs with information from blood sugar meters.  Patients are then able to share data directly with their physicians.   

Sanofi is also making strides to put itself in a position to capitalize on future tech, partnering with venture capital funds and accelerators focused on healthcare tech.   Of note, the French company partnered with Cathay Innovation and Plug and Play.  

Both organizations are focused on identifying and funding promising health-tech start-ups.  The partnerships primarily focus on Asia based companies and should help Sanofi identify innovative new tech that can strengthen its presence in digital and in Asia in general.

Novartis [6]

After two years as the top dog, Novartis’s flurry of exceedingly innovative projects has cooled off, landing them at 6th place on this year’s index.  

However, this slowing is not indicative of a lack of dedication or a deviation from their mission of transformation through technology.  Rather, it reflects how far Novartis has come in the last two years; there’s simply less room for them to implement dramatic, highly innovative approaches. This is evidenced in the fact that Novartis has moved from implementing a handful of highly impactful innovations to implementing a larger breadth of small-scale, tech-based innovations.   

True to form, Novartis continues to integrate digital across all corners of the company, albeit on a smaller scale. This includes a steady stream of mobile apps and platforms specific to disease areas and brands.   

Two promising digital innovations this year - and partly why they ranked 3rd in the digital category – were the newly announced collaboration with AWS and the acquisition of Amblyotech.  

The AWS partnership aims to streamline business processes, leveraging an AI platform to create another ‘Insight Centers’ (recall the Nerve center from previous years) that provides real-time visibility across manufacturing and distribution.  

The acquisition of Amblyotech builds on Novartis’s legacy of leveraging digital tech as a therapeutic in and of itself.  With the acquisition, Novartis takes over a novel digital therapy seeking to treat children and adult patients with “lazy eye” via gaming and passive video technology.  

Novartis also continues expanding its digital Biome footprint, opening several new locations that add to its growing network of digital innovation labs.  

GlaxoSmithKline [7]

Making a 7-spot jump on this year’s index, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is making huge leaps in digital innovation but thrived in 2020 due to their abundance of new partnerships. According to the index, GSK is one of pharma’s top collaborators, so their additional technologically oriented moves in 2020 point to good signs in terms of their future. 

One of the most impactful technological innovations of the year for GSK was the opening of their AI Hub in King’s Cross, London. This AI hotspot will house 30 GSK scientists and engineers who will collaborate with some of the most experienced data science innovators in the world to find new ways to develop medicines using data. This hub, right in the heart of an area becoming renowned for growing AI innovation, puts GSK in a position to work with scientists across different industries to discover new drug-making applications.

Another interesting innovation on the front of digital clinical trial tools is their joint clinical trial with 23andMe. After acquiring a large stake in 23andMe in 2018, GSK is now beginning its first trial in conjunction with the genetic testing company with its CD96 antibody drug. This trial, if successful, could mark a milestone effort in clinical data analytics, as 23andMe customers volunteer genetic data that has potential for the identification of qualified candidates and other more intricate genetic patterns. In addition to this trial launch, the two companies have almost 30 other programs in the works that explore drugs across many organs and areas of biological study.

Eli Lilly [8]

This year Lilly has pushed into the top 10 with strong trial optimization performance driven by COVID-19 adaption and advances in the digital space.

In June, Lilly was the first company to announce and initiate a study on aCOVID-19 antibody therapeutic; they are also looking for the nod from the FDA on Olumiant for emergency use. Alongside these initiatives, the company has launched multiple digital and physical patient assistance programs, including mobile research units to reach elderly patients, insulin provision programs, and an artificial intelligence platform to automate adverse event reporting for clinical trials during the pandemic.

Separate from COVID-19, Lilly entered a partnership with Dexcom for the use of continuous glucose monitoring devices (CGMs) and a pump for Lilly’s close-loop diabetes management system creating a personalized insulin delivery system alongside software analysis to reduce patient burden with diabetes. Another development in the diabetes space, Eli Lilly has formed a collaboration with Livongo Health Inc., leading to a study seeking to demonstrate the utilization of remote monitoring and analytics in clinical trials. On the manufacturing side, a partnership with Strateos, Inc. will see the launch of an innovative remote-controlled robotic cloud lab in San Diego, one of the first of its kind, enabling remote research.

Merck & Co [9]

Coming in at 9th on this year’s CNS Summit Index, Merck & Co. has entered joined the most innovative companies in pharma in the top 10 through their well-rounded innovation agenda. While the company is making strides to find solutions using digital transformation and optimizing clinical data, its 2020 ranking is primarily a result of an abundance of unique partnerships.

One of the most intriguing–and potentially most transformative–developments in drug making in 2020 is Merck’s partnership with German manufacturer AMCM to develop 3D printed tablets. This method of 3D printing pills is an area in which Merck could further their commitment to patients by allowing for a more personalized approach to dosages, as well as further adaptability in terms of local flexibility and scaling. 

Another transformative partnership for Merck came in its acquisition of Themis, a company focused on vaccines and immune-modulation therapy for infectious diseases and cancer. While the acquisition’s immediate impact will come in the acceleration of their measles vector-based vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, Themis has a lot to offer as a subsidiary of Merck. Up to this point, the company has developed a variety of vaccine candidates and immune-modulatory therapies with their unique measles virus vector platform. This platform has been licensed solely to Themis for select viral indications.

Takeda [10]

After finishing 9th in 2019, Takeda has dropped 1 spot to 10th in 2020. Although they have dropped a rank this year, Takeda has placed within the top 10 for the past 3 years – cementing their role as an industry innovator. Placing 8th in the Trial Optimization category helped propel them up the overall rankings, while impressive rankings in the digital and partnership categories rounded-out their 2020 top 10 bid.

Takeda pioneered several exciting digital enterprises aimed at patient support and education, including a mobile application with 3D rendering that enables patients to “go inside the body” with virtual reality videos to learn about topics such as the clotting process in people who have a bleeding disorders, such as hemophilia, and help them understand how factor treatment works to help clot blood. In addition to education, Takeda has worked diligently to evolve patient information capture in major depressive disorder (MDD) with their Cognition Kit DSST (Digit Symbol Substitution Test) app- presenting data demonstrating comparable results to the traditional paper Pearson WAIS IV DSST at the Psych Congress 2020.

One particularly intriguing partnership formed by Takeda in the past year was their collaboration with MD Anderson. The partnership is seeking to develop a novel approach to delivering an off-the-shelf CAR NK-Cell therapy platform in an outpatient setting. This promising engagement would enable more patients to be treated quickly, effectively, and with minimal toxicities –shifting the cell therapy paradigm and pushing this powerful treatment option into the future.

To see what companies occupy positions 11 -30, please visit the dedicated website at CNS Summit Innovation Index. And do not hesitate to get in contact with IDEA Pharma or The CNS Summit should you wish to discuss anything.

CNS Summit Innovation Index Methodology

The metrics are calculated using publicly available information, examining initiatives and investments that commence or are ongoing between October 2019 to October 2020. The data is used to rank companies by three facets of innovation:

  • Technology Advancement

  • Trial Optimization

  • Innovative Partnerships


The innovativeness of efforts cannot be measured directly, therefore IDEA Pharma deploys surrogate measures to determine potential impact and breadth of each initiative.

Categories used to rank top 30 pharma include (non-exclusive list): 

Technology Advancement

    • Mobile Health

    • Sensor and Wearables & Other Devices

    • Web Platforms / Software

    • AI / Machine Learning

    • Social Media / Patient Services

Trial Optimization

    • Patient recruitment / retention

    • Remote patient monitoring

    • Data and analytics

    • Logistic and coordination

    • Trial Design

Innovative Partnerships

    • Academic and Incubation Hubs

    • Innovative Start ups

    • Innovative Industry


Each of the above are collated for each company and weighted to produce the CNS Summit Innovation index    

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