Stirring the Pot Once in a While Doesn’t Hurt, and It Could Help Biotech Break its Malaise

9/19/11Follow @xconomy

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to push Friedman back on his heels, rather than tear the guy’s head off. He’s not calling Friedman a moron, he’s criticizing Friedman’s actions. This is completely fair game, just like it’s Friedman’s absolute right to criticize Vertex and question its growth trajectory.

Even though this is mild stuff, public confrontation doesn’t happen every day in biotech, so it makes news, and was circulated widely on Twitter. As someone who edits tech news in Seattle, I can say nobody would bat an eyelash at this in tech, unless it came from a celebrity like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Among mere mortals, there are dozens of tech entrepreneurs in my city who are perfectly willing and able to call Microsoft out in public for its various stumbles. I consider it a great thing, nothing more than healthy dialogue that strengthens the community and the industry.

I get why so many biotech executives and investors can be so circumspect in public. They fear retribution from the FDA, from partners, from board members, from the media. Saying something controversial carries risks. Emmens might feel confident enough to take on Morgan Stanley now while his company is riding high. But this is a volatile business, and I’m sure he considered beforehand the possibility that some tough talk could come back to bite him at a later date, when he could be in a weaker position.

Yet every now and then, it pays to take the gloves off. Alnylam CEO John Maraganore did it last fall in an interview with me, when he had some choice words for Roche after the pharma giant pulled out of a collaboration. Investors were bailing fast on Alnylam, and he needed to do something to restore confidence, even if it may not have been well received in the C-suite in Basel. “Roche made a decision to be focused on near-termism. They are walking away from an incredibly important field that we think in the future they will regret,” Maraganore said in December.

I understand that when people get called out in public for making bonehead moves, the targets sometimes have long memories. It can limit some already pretty limited career options. And when the whole biotech industry is shrinking, jobs and financing can be excruciatingly hard to come by.

But if the industry is afraid to have real arguments about real problems in the public domain, you have to wonder how serious it is about solving its problems. I’ve seen some good ideas emerge from debate on our site and others. I’m not suggesting biotech go down the low road of politics, and stoop to the level of personal attacks and name-calling for publicity value alone. That won’t help solve anything. But it’s fair game to challenge powerful people in public, whether they be from Morgan Stanley, the FDA, a pharma company, or a big-name VC firm in Silicon Valley. They are sometimes wrong, sometimes disastrously wrong, and sometimes they need people to stand up and get in their face to tell them when they are wrong.

If people are too shy to stir the pot, it can make for a pretty bland stew.

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  • http://www.PharmaReform Mike Wokasch

    Luke,
    I agree with you entirely. I think you and your readers will find that the book Pharmaplasia(TM) and blog PharmaReform.com have taken the pharmaceutical industry to task while also trying to provide solutions and recommendations for change.

    Unfortunately, those who could make the necessary changes have not intention of compromising their executive position and have sufficient financial resources to weather getting fired (or quitting). The rest are just trying to hold onto their jobs.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/markedwardminie Mark Edward Minie

    “If people are too shy to stir the pot, it can make for a pretty bland stew.”

    And very likely an inedible stew with no nutritional value at that…

  • http://www.BiotechStockResearch.com David Miller

    I think the reticence to call others out also has to do with the oppressive failure rate in biotech. You do the same thing for a decade, spend a few hundred million of other people’s money, then fail. This is the norm, with only about 18% of drugs entering human trial seeing FDA approval.

    Saying executives should be more aggressive for calling out stupidity is fine, but that’s awfully hard to do in practice when the average CEO is batting below the Mendoza line.

    As for criticizing the FDA, well, have you met Richard Pazdur? Only people who don’t have any desire to ever get a drug approved can dare criticize publicly that group.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ltimmerman/ Luke Timmerman

    David—good point about the failure rate. I realize there are all kinds of risks to being outspoken, so execs need to pick their shots.

    I know what you mean about Pazdur at the FDA. That’s why people who are a couple steps removed, like VCs or public investors, probably need to be the ones to challenge FDA. Or maybe columnists!

  • R. Jones

    The executives, investors and Xconomy are ignoring the elephant in the room. Biotechnology is better described as bio-business. Light on the technology and heavy on the business. Your link to LifeSci VC tells the story: Recovering scientist turned early stage VC, A biotech optimist fighting gravity.

    Recovering scientist? Working as an honest scientist is a tough job. Working as an optimistic executive and/or investor is the way around the harsh cruel world of research. Unfortunately, working around that harsh cruel world has produced an industry heavy on business, light on technology.

  • nanostring

    Wait, what? Never expected such piece from Xconomy, the most non-abrasive tech blog there is…