Pharma companies are starting to recruit top talent from tech giants like Google and LinkedIn

Key Points
  • Pharma companies are starting to recruit talent from big tech companies.
  • This is another sign that the health and technology sectors are converging in a big way.
An employee of British drug firm GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) enters their office headquarters in Shanghai.
Peter Parks | AFP | Getty Images

Pharmaceutical companies aren't often associated with technology prowess, but a select few are trying to change that.

CNBC has learned that GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and other pharma companies are actively recruiting technologists from companies like Google and Microsoft's LinkedIn.

The goal is to hire engineers to help modernize the processes that big pharma uses to discover and develop new drugs.

GSK alone has more than a dozen former employees from the largest tech companies working under its chief data officer Mark Ramsey, who was himself recruited from Samsung. Ramsey is looking to hire "dozens more," from the tech sector according to a GSK spokesperson.

"The pharma industry has been lagging when it comes to tech," said GSK's Ramsey in an interview with CNBC.

Ramsey sees ample opportunities for tech workers to build machine learning tools that analyze health information. One example of that is an ongoing project, depending on a green-light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to use previously-collected clinical trial data as an alternative to a control arm in a study.

That could potentially reduce the cost of clinical trials, and provide a better experience for patients.

Another big area is clinical trial recruitment: Researchers are finding that it's easier, cheaper and reliable enough to find candidates via mobile technologies, versus the alternatives, which involve broad targeting with radio or paper-based ads.

"Digital devices are interesting to us, as they can capture really granular data," he said. "Typically a patient has to go to a clinic and get lab tests, which happens on an infrequent basis."

The big challenge for pharma is to build awareness in the tech community. Ramsey says it's part of his job to educate talented engineers and product managers about "all the cool things that are happening in pharma," and not to be intimidated if they don't have a health background.

Now, he said, about 80 percent of his team has no life sciences experience at all.

J&J's global health of health technology Marc Leibowitz, who previously worked at Google and Dropbox, is also building out a team in San Francisco, New York and other tech hubs.

According to LinkedIn, some of his most senior colleagues include Oliver Hsiang, a former vice president at Lyft who previously worked at Google and LinkedIn, and Jill Applebaum, also formerly of Google.