Will Scientists Take Back the Pharma Industry?

Theral Timpson

“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” Bertrand Russell

Retirement can do a lot for someone who’s been bottled up in a big company for thirty years. Especially if they don’t actually retire. Bernard Munos spent thirty years at Lilly where for the last ten years he was focused on disruptive innovation. But it didn’t happen there. So he’s out to see if he can ignite a fire for disruption in the industry before it’s too late.

Leading as full a life as ever, Bernard travels the world with his ideas about what’s wrong with the pharma industry, and more importantly, how to fix it. One week in India, the next in Dubai, then off to Europe, his busy schedule brought him back to the Bay Area this week for a ‘Fireside Chat’ hosted by the BioExec Institute. Though we had Bernard on the show for a two part series recently (Part I and Part II), it’s hard to pass up the chance to hear one with such a provocative message. I was also anxious to see the crowd he could draw and what response he’s getting.

Bernard can draw a crowd. In what felt like a grassroots gathering, there were folks from all over the industry, and not just the typical networking crowd. CEO’s (including Sangamo’s Edward Lanphier and Susan Molineaux of Calithera) and other high level executives from local Bay Area pharma and biotech filled the room at the TRES Lounge in San Francisco. And there was discussion.

All over his material like a seasoned campaign veteran, Bernard has become quite comfortable with his presentation. He lets the audience choose from a list of issues the industry is facing, knowing that no matter which door you walk in, you’ll end up in the same place. The core problem for Bernard is that the industry has had a change in values. These values are set by the CEOs of the big pharma companies. What Munos doesn’t come right out and ask, but hangs at the end of each of his provocative turns: When are the industry’s participants-and more importantly, scientists--going to take back the industry?

The CEO’s of big pharma are for the most part businessmen and not scientists, he says. Most have little appetite for risk and bold innovation. Bernard flips through slide after slide seemingly at random with charts and graphs showing an industry poised for disruption. With facts such as that near 80% of prescriptions are filled by generics today, Bernard’s hypotheses are hard to reject. When members of the audience push him further on different points, Bernard is only too happy to oblige and find further worrisome facts.

The name Art Levinson (Chair and former CEO of Genentech) came up several times as an example of a leader who was himself a scientist and had a large appetite for risk.

“Once I heard Art give a presentation,” Munos recalled. “And it was overwhelming. Here was a CEO who talked about deep science with passion. I could not help make comparisons, and think how empowering he must have been for scientists working at Genentech, because no matter how bold they were, they could not be bolder than the boss.”

A former employee of Genentech who worked under Art was in the audience concurred that he was a leader driven by passion, but suggested that one of the big problems is that there aren’t enough biological targets to go around. That the industry had reached a certain point of saturation.

“We would get new hires,” he went on “and they would sit down with us and see the drug targets that we were pursuing and say ‘these are the same ones we were working on over at you-name-it company.’” (I didn’t catch the name of the commenter.)

To respond, Bernard was ready with another slide showing the waves of innovation that have driven the industry for the last sixty years, graphed per disease. In one instance there was a flood of new drugs for schizophrenic disorders in the 60’s and 70’s, and then a 15-year drought.

“This is the way science goes,” Munos reminded the crowd. “Biology is not predictable. CEOs who insist that it should be will end up wasting tons of money chasing innovation where it is not ready to thrive”.

Bernard says that about every 15 or 20 years every industry faces radical disruption. That moment is here for pharma today. He’s even willing to talk about which big pharma companies will survive the next few years and which won’t. He’s thinks Novartis and Sanofi are taking necessary steps to avoid catastrophe, but is much less sure about AstraZeneca and Pfizer.

The audience was engaged and most of those who spoke up were scientists. I had the feeling that these were folks who cared about the bigger picture and were determined to take on Bernard’s challenge. To take back the industry for science.

I should mention the UC Berkeley BioExec Institute who put on the event. The Institute is housed over at UC-Berkeley’s Center for Executive Education and provides Director and VP-level executives with training to develop leadership skills in the industry and learn new tools for marketing and branding. The program is taught by industry leaders, such as Bernard, offering attendees six days of interactive programming from October through December. The fireside chats are led by Institute teachers and spaced throughout the year. Former speakers/panelists have been Paul Hastings, Board Chairman for BayBio and CEO of OncoMed Pharmaceuticals and Barbara Handelin, CEO of BioPontis Alliance (Listen to our upcoming interview with Barbara).

Bernard calls himself the Apostle of Innovation. Perhaps this religious term is a bit out of place in a scientific industry. But going with his allusion, the Voice for disruptive change is finding followers.

Listen to a two part interview with Bernard. Part 1 Part 2

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