Novartis taps Iya Khalil, physicist co-founder of GNS Healthcare, to lead AI Innovation Center
At the turn of the millennium, finishing up her PhD in theoretical physics, Iya Khalil found the career paths in front of her wanting. Academic postings were tough to get, but she couldn’t envision applying all she’s learned to predict stocks on Wall Streets, as some of her contemporaries did.
She was working on models of two-dimensional electron gas, a topic in solid-state physics, when she met Colin Hill, the fellow Cornell physicist with whom she would later start a company named Gene Network Sciences.
“As I started to dig into biology, we’re dealing with — on some level — a far more vast complex system, and people were just trying to use their empirical minds to understand it,” she recalled on a TechTonics podcast from 2018. “They observe it and their minds, they go, oh I understand this pathway. And I thought, OK, this is a field that really does need mathematics. And if we could apply now, in the same way we do in physics, sort of observation with math to make quantitative predictions, perhaps we can get at really understanding fundamentally why a cell becomes cancerous and start to target it.”
After 20 years building both the platform and a business model — including a decade as chief commercial officer at the rebranded GNS Healthcare, selling its tech platform to biopharma companies — Khalil is now joining Novartis as the global head of the AI Innovation Center.
In the role, Khalil will be responsible for “leading deep AI innovations for the enterprise, at a global scale and be the interface between Novartis and a number of key external partners including Microsoft and leading academic institutions,” the Swiss drugmaker said in a statement.
Vas Narasimhan has made big data a core tenet of his reign at Novartis, shining a bright spotlight on things like a NASA-style clinical trial command center. He was also one of the first Big Pharma CEOs to hire a chief digital officer, bringing in Bertrand Bodson from Sainsbury’s Argos early in 2018.
The AI innovation lab was launched last October in partnership with Microsoft, with a broad mission to empower every Novartis employee and explore some of the hardest computational challenges in drug discovery, development and optimization.
Khalil is now tasked with all of that.
In a farewell note to GNS — which is now distinguishing itself among a new wave of AI players promising to predict patient outcomes, identify biomarkers and suggest drug targets with a causal machine learning model — she reflected on her big bet on what was then a barely existent field and what the future holds.
The potential of AI and deep data is limitless in helping us decipher human disease and biology, defining AI as a key part of the path forward. I am so proud of the work we have done at GNS and the work our partners have accomplished with the help of our technology. Leaving is never easy, but in taking this next step, I am excited to continue bringing the promise of AI to fruition in life sciences. GNS, and the experiences we shared here, will always be a huge part of me.