Five Lessons Immunex Taught Me

11/28/11

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data help us get to a decision point?

I learned the importance of the gray from our work on Interleukin-1. We now know there are two forms of IL-1, each with a different protein sequence and produced by different genes, although they have similar biological activities.

Of course, we did not know that when we were first trying to isolate the molecule. We thought there was only one.

In the primitive days of the early ’80s, we initially only had a biological assay to work with and thought that only one protein or gene was involved. To enhance our chances of isolating the correct protein and gene responsible for the activity, we tried two different approaches – one group attacked the problem from the protein side and one attacked it from the gene side.

Both approaches successfully identified molecules with the correct biological activity but it quickly became clear that the two approaches could not have isolated the same molecule – two different molecules were being examined. Since we expected only one, which one was the correct molecule?

There were a lot of conversations about the results. Perhaps one approach was wrong and had identified the wrong molecule? Perhaps there was a contaminating protein messing up the assays? Maybe the purification process was incomplete or the DNA sequencing data was wrong? Maybe someone made a mistake? Had the reagents been made properly? Should we decide that one of the possible molecules was wrong and only concentrate on the other? Could we continue doing two separate approaches?

We realized that we did not have enough data to produce a final decision point. It simply was not possible yet to remove the Fog of Science and get clarity on the real science of the system.

So we continued moving forward by taking both approaches to their end points – getting the genes cloned for both molecules and making sure the proteins produced by these gene sequences actually had the correct activities.

That would get us to a true decision point. We only had to live in a few months of uncertainty to get clarity. A very unforeseen clarity.

It turned out that each approach was actually successful. We unexpectedly isolated two different molecules, each having the activity we were looking for. We now call those proteins IL-1 alpha and IL-1 beta today.

Knowing when you do not know enough is an important part of any process. Just as there can be pressures to not make a decision, there can be strong pressures to decide now – one way or another. Every day costs more money and uses more resources. But making a decision based on incomplete data can bring a company to its knees.

Data is king in biotechnology.

By waiting until we had all the data we needed, we ended up knowing more than if we had decided too early. This information allowed us to have a strong lead over others who only isolated one molecule.

Living in the gray can be as important as making a decision. Too many companies think that delaying a decision – staying in one spot – is the same as living in the gray.

But standing still is not progress. Learning to be comfortable in the Fog of Science lets one move forward, even if you can not easily see your steps.

3) Size matters. Immunex was pretty small when I joined – about 50 people located on 2-3 floors of one building. When I left 16 years later, there were almost 2,000 people found at more locations than most of us knew about. We went through lots of changes as we grew but the largest one for me became clear when we grew through 150 to over 200.

Dunbar’s number has been much discussed. About 150 people are all that our brains can hold and still intuitively know how everyone fits. I learned this first hand.

When I joined Immunex, it was easy to know what everyone was working on, when they failed and when they succeeded. If we cloned something in the morning, Gillis would be breaking out the champagne in the afternoon. We’d all be drinking beers down the street at the Mark Tobey, the nearest pub – another important Seattle institution lost on the Web.

But, and this was long before I ever heard of Dunbar’s number, when we made a large expansion through 200 people or so, I noticed something happen – all of a sudden there were people walking around that I had never seen before. I had no idea who they were, what they were working on or what their favorite beer was.

There were all these strangers, looking busy but doing who knew what.

Communication became much harder because the default communication system no longer worked well for effectively moving information around. We no longer could fit everyone into the Mark Tobey or actually any one room in the company. In the hierarchical system that started developing, there were now too many steps between people for information to traverse as easily as before.

For example, one of Gillis’ incredible talents that I greatly appreciated was his ability to walk in cold to any meeting and ask the one question that cut to the heart of the matter under discussion, no matter the topic or how much everyone else was dancing around it.

But as his time became more constrained by other needs, he could not make as many research meetings. As we got bigger, it became harder for any of us to really know what everyone else was doing.

We started dancing around making decisions. We made unnerving moves towards the delaying approaches of other companies.

And it became harder to reach decision points because the right data were not getting to the right people. We had a harder time moving out of the gray because we were not getting the information we needed.

This is something many companies have to face. Just as the oxygen-carrying systems of organisms get more complex as they get larger, so too must the information-carrying systems in a company.

Plan for dealing with communication inefficiency as the organization grows. Simply increasing spots on a hierarchical chart does not work.

4) Leverage insurrection. Creative minds need obstacles to overcome if they are to produce innovation.

Immunex always lacked money so finding innovative ways to surmount research obstacles was a very important skill. Sometimes Immunex creatively found ways to use these abilities in other areas than research.

When Immunex was small, all scientists had offices … Next Page »

Richard Gayle is the founder and president of SpreadingScience. Follow @

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  • Tina Hoffman

    Thank you for this post. I was at Immunex only a short time, as a contract administrative assistant. However, I remember that Immunex decisiveness very well, and I have yet to find it’s equal.