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Forget the Shortcuts: Creating a Truly Innovative Biotech Culture


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in setting up these assays, not on the other work that you did. My interpretation of this time-split? The company thought the screening work was so boring that in order to hire people, they needed to allow them at least a small portion of time to do something that might actually be of intellectual interest.

Contrast this with what I found in biotech. Everyone in the organization seemed to dress in the same casual style that I had become accustomed to in my grad school and post-doctoral academic environments. An egalitarian system was in place where lab assistants with talent and drive (but no advanced degrees) could advance to the same scientist level as newly-hired PhDs. All of my time was to be spent exploring avenues of the company’s research focus in immunology and oncology. This would involve truly cutting edge experiments that held the promise of breakthroughs in understanding the causes and treatments of disease. Data could be published in top-flight journals, and the company would (and did) support my success by filing patents on my work and allowing me to talk about my work at conferences around the globe.

In the end, it really was a simple choice, and I leaped into biotech at Seattle-based Immunex in 1988. The strong science focus allowed me to ignore the fact that biotechs couldn’t offer the economic stability of traditional pharmaceutical companies. Yet this supposed advantage turned out to be an illusion, as Big Pharma companies have continually laid off thousands of researchers in recent years.

You know the old joke that there are two sides to every issue, and a politician usually takes both? Well, while it’s a bit of an over-simplification, there are two kinds of pharma/biotech cultures. Those that innovate, like Genentech and Immunex, and those that buy innovation, like most of Big Pharma. Companies that choose to innovate need to have a culture in place that will lead to novel discoveries that can be exploited in a clinical setting. But how does one set an innovative culture in place? What are some of the key factors that can be used to create a culture of success in biotech research? Let me share a few thoughts:

Understand that cutting edge research cannot be done on a deadline

As one of my grad school mentors used to tell me “if it was easy, somebody else would have already done it.” While one should always be held accountable for making progress, it is impossible to predict exactly when a particular protein might be cloned, a novel pathway identified, or a small molecule inhibitor developed. As a result of this, companies need to employ a diversity of approaches in their research programs. Some may bear fruit right away, others years from now, and some possibly never. Diversification … Next Page »

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  • CMCguy

    You make many good points and especially agree with the getting the right mix of people as crucial. With that in mind there have been much failure in biotechs where good innovative science did not translate to satisfactory outcomes during development or achieve sufficient financial backing because did not bring on people with correct expertise to guide or support required growth. Often the “old organizations” overtly resists the changes, new functions or knowledgeable newcomers that are necessary in such an evolution to an actual company, not a research lab. A group of bench workers tend to know little about what development is and even less about finances.

    Although I do think big pharma has largely lost its way in recent decades, because as suggested seems to be much less science driven/lead (also more blockbuster blinded), I think there is a core of highly skilled and expert personnel that exists at most places who could be innovative and better enable the drug development activities

  • http://www.lymanbiopharma.com Stewart Lyman

    To further illustrate the conversion of Roche into Genentech, it was announced in mid October that the Genentech brand will replace the Roche brand on all drugs that are sold in the United States. This includes small molecules, Roche’s bread and butter for many, many years.

  • CMCguy

    Stewart I don’t understand the point of your follow-up comment on this re-branding name choice. I think this all has little if anything to do with Innovation but more so I see likely as a “clever” Marketing strategy to disassociate from public/political negatively viewed “Big Pharma” label to a more favorably perceived “Biotech” business. Roche may adopt some Genentech ways, particularly for certain areas (namely Biologics), but at its core doubtful will really change much.

  • http://www.lymanbiopharma.com Stewart Lyman

    Sorry I didn’t make this clearer. My point in this case was indeed not focused on innovation but branding and marketing. Yes, changing the products to say they are made by Genentech instead of Roche illustrates that the company wants to be associated more favorably with the biotech world and especially Genentech, which has a reputation for a highly innovative culture and products. This was something done for public consumption. But I doubt that the public at large paid any attention to Roche’s switch from PhRMA to BIO, or was aware of the move of scientists from the East Coast to the West. Roche may not be successful in remaking their culture, but from where I am watching it appears they recognize the need to change their research programs internally, and are at least hopeful that they can get the Genentech “magic” to rub off on the other parts of the company. Sometimes adopting the trappings of a successful culture can help to drive a change in that direction. Time will tell if they are successful or not.