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Novartis, Trying Not to Burn the Hamburger, Increases its Bet on the Bay Area

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hired UCSF researcher Don Ganem to lead.

Whitters pointed to the recruitment of Ganem, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher, as a sign of the new commitment to infectious disease research in particular in the Bay Area. Ganem, who has worked on understanding the basics of how viruses spread and cause all kinds of damage, will be setting up on the same campus where Novartis produces its bread-and-butter DNA-based diagnostics. These tests are used to screen about 80 percent of the U.S. blood supply for pathogens like HIV, Hepatitis B virus, Hepatitis C virus, and West Nile virus.

By strengthening its infectious disease research in Emeryville, Novartis hopes to support the blood screening business.

“We want to unify it under one banner, to make sure they work together in a productive environment,” Whitters says.

Novartis’ presence in the Bay Area isn’t just about one product line or what happens inside its walls on the Emeryville campus, Whitters says. The company wants to get better connected with the top academic groups at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, and UCSF. It sounds like there’s a lot of work to do on that front after years of letting relationships whither. Whitters, who has been at Novartis in Emeryville less than two years, says he has heard people at UCSF talk about how Chiron was once considered “UCSF East” because there were so many interactions between the company and the university. “We’re looking to extend that same kind of mentality today,” he says.

Doing that will take time. Whitters says the company wants to foster more connections by holding daylong innovation symposiums in Emeryville, where it will continue to invite top researchers from around the world to talk about big scientific challenges—the kind of thing that can invigorate the troops in-house. But to be productive, these informal exchanges have to flow in both directions, Whitters says. So Novartis also wants to contribute by sending company experts to the campuses, where they can teach basic business concepts like regulatory affairs, product management, and life-cycle planning that aren’t really covered that much (if at all) in graduate biology programs.

This sort of engagement isn’t new—Novartis and other pharma companies have set up shop in Cambridge, MA, specifically so they can rub elbows with top scientists at Harvard University and MIT. But that sort of activity hasn’t happened nearly as much in the Bay Area, from what I gather.

While there might be some PR value in being seen as a corporate citizen rather than a black box, getting engaged in the community is really about business. The pressure is on, as the future of Novartis, and its Big Pharma peers, depends on coming up with innovative new diagnostics and vaccines. Those advances come from people like Ganem and his friends in the world of infectious disease research. “We have to reinvent ourselves,” Whitters says.

Reinvention can go one of two ways, but at least there’s a coherent group of people at Novartis working together to avoid scorching the steak.

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