Eli Lilly CEO John Lechleiter on Tackling the Pharmaceutical R&D Crisis (Part 2)

11/22/11Follow @xconomy

Yesterday, we ran the first installment of an interview with Eli Lilly CEO John Lechleiter, in which he says the pharmaceutical industry is breaking out of its current rut, and is beginning to get more productive at pumping out more innovative new drugs.

Today, we follow up with the second half of the interview, which includes some interesting thoughts on “open innovation” that were prompted by a question from Twitter.

Xconomy: Is it possible to get too big as an organization to innovate? Is this partly why you’ve resisted the urge to do a mega-merger like some people have said they want to see?

John Lechleiter: We’ve done lots of studies, several huge studies in the late 1990s that date back to the pre-Prozac patent expiration. We fail to see a connection between size and innovativeness. I’m not smart enough to say that it’s best to be this size or that size, but obviously if you’re a $50 billion-a-year company or a $70 billion-a-year company, growing 10 percent a year means you have be a lot more innovative in an absolute sense than a company of Lilly’s size at $23 billion in revenue. We study this question of how to create a company that’s really innovative. I don’t think there’s an easy answer, otherwise the industry would have locked and loaded on it.

I do think there are things that matter. I think co-location is important. Hiring talented people and keeping them. There are cycle times of 10-15 years in this industry. I’ve been at Lilly for 32 years, and I’ve only been around the horn two or three times.

We still think we hire people for careers. That may sound corny to some people, and fly in the face of what we hear. I think we heard today (from University of Washington president Michael Young) that people can expect to have three different careers. But we aim to give people a reason to want to stay and want to be productive at Lilly, and that they can stay and realize their career ambitions. Obviously there are lots of other things that go into the equation. Things like what kind of leadership and management is most conducive to innovation. I can tell you when I talk about commitment to innovation, this is what our scientists want to hear. They want to know they have a CEO who is committed to what they do. I think it matters a lot. I’m betting on them, and they know it. And I think it’s a good bet.

Eli Lilly CEO John Lechleiter

X: You made a reference earlier today about the pharma industry’s need to better communicate what it does to the broader public. But I have to challenge that, and bring up some of the major ethics problems this industry has had over the years, and which the public hears a lot about. Whether it’s hiding bad data, or bribing clinical researchers overseas to get good data, or pay-to-delay agreements with generic companies, tax evasion, off-label marketing, and on and on and on. My question to you is what are one or two things that the industry can do, that are legitimate things, that could restore some public confidence?

JL: First of all, transparency. We were the first company, in 2004, to post our clinical trial results online, whether they are positive or negative. Now everybody does that. It’s interesting to me that you don’t hear much anymore about concerns over clinical trial data not being shared. Or about negative results not being shared. It doesn’t mean, Shazam!, the problem goes away. But I think most people are reasonably assured now, through clinicaltrials.gov, and through other disclosure mechanisms, that the light in the room is on, and there is widespread knowledge of what trials have been started, which ones are running, and what the results are.

It’s interesting to me to think back 10-15 years ago, about all the reasons we didn’t want to share that information, and most of that revolved around concerns about proprietary information. We have shareholders to think of, and competitive issues to manage. It turns out that wasn’t such a problem. Transparency around clinical trials is something we have been able to manage, and we’ve been able to maintain necessary protection around the intellectual property that we need.

Secondly, we have to show we can be trusted. We need to recognize that some people’s view of pharma is going to be colored by past transgressions. People can point to a failure here or there, but in the long run we have shown we can be trusted partners, based on our behavior. We put in a state-of-the-art, robust, and effective program within Lilly to ensure it’s more than words. We have an assurance that all 35,000 people across the company who work for us understand how it is we do business, and how the way we do business reflects on who we are, and how we are seen by the public.

The other thing I was talking about before (during the WBBA conference) is about doing a better job over time, putting in understandable terms, what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Our business is very complex. It doesn’t lend itself to sound bites. When you say to people it takes $1 billion to bring a medicine to the market, can I explain that in 15 seconds? It’s very difficult to do. It’s hard to talk about why intellectual property is important. Some will say it keeps medicines from being widely available in countries where people can’t afford to pay for them. There’s a great discussion around that. The answer is IP doesn’t preclude that automatically. But having those debates, and being out in public as I was here today, and being willing to engage on tough and sensitive topics is something all of our leaders and all our companies frankly need to be more engaged in.

X: You also spoke earlier about the need to modernize the FDA to help improve innovation. What do you have in mind specifically? … Next Page »

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