Eli Lilly Rewrites Drug R&D Rule Book
By Rob Wright
|Rob Wright (L) chief editor of Life Science Leader, with Alan Palkowitz, VP of discovery chemistry and member of the LRL team.|
Last week I had the opportunity to get a rare behind the scenes tour of three of Eli Lilly’s (NYSE: LLY) research laboratories — Alzheimer’s Disease (in vivo), Advanced Analytics (in silico), and Automated Synthesis (in vitro), as well as sit in on the company’s investment community update meeting. Having worked in pharma for 17 years, with numerous trips to the corporate headquarters of Mead Johnson Nutritional (NYSE: MJN) in Evansville, IN, and Organon Pharmaceuticals in Roseland, NJ (prior to being acquired by Schering-Plough), I thought I was well prepared for what to expect. However, the size of a top 10 Big Pharma company’s home office is extremely impressive. For example, the Lilly campus includes a credit union, exercise and healthcare facilities, and a full-size soccer field. But more impressive than the facilities are the 10,000+ people who work within the four walls of the complex — and their willingness to rewrite the rules of drug R&D.
First, Break All The Rules
One of my favorite management books, First, Break All The Rules, notes that great managers do not hesitate to break virtually every rule held sacred by conventional wisdom. I wouldn’t doubt this book is required reading at Lilly, a company intent on taking an atypical approach to how a Big Pharma conducts business. Let’s start with CEO, John Lechleiter, Ph.D., who took the top spot in 2008. This was just three years prior to the period he refers to as “years YZ,” a term used to describe the challenging time when several of its top drugs lost patent protection (2011 – 2014). Many members of the media and some folks in the investment community question Lechleiter’s decision to stay the course on developing innovative drugs, focusing instead on sensationalizing recent clinical trial failures and demonstrating little patience with leadership — despite research showing “homegrown” and tenured leadership results in better business performance. Having joined Lilly in 1979 as an R&D organic chemist, the 34-year company veteran is in only his fifth year as the company’s CEO — three years below the average tenure of a North American CEO. Success in the drug development business takes continuity, consistency, and patience. From my perspective, Lilly and Lechleiter are on the verge of a breakthrough. Perhaps this is why more analysts recommend holding on to, or buying the stock, than those pushing the sell button.
Prior to his taking the stage at the investor conference, I thanked John for inviting us to the meeting and lab tour. I commented that I was glad to see him back at the helm after heart surgery to repair a dilated aorta, something he admitted was lucky to have been detected. I asked if that was why he was wearing a monitoring device at the PhRMA annual meeting when last we spoke. Smiling, he responded “No,” and proceeded to push up his shirt sleeve to reveal a NikeFuel bracelet. “I serve on the board of Nike and like to make sure I show support.”
Want Innovation – Hire Persistent Innovators
The day before speaking with Lechleiter, I attended an invite-only reporter roundtable to meet with the entire Lilly Research Laboratories (LRL) leadership team — headed up by Jan Lundberg, Ph.D. After being personally recruited by Lechleiter, Lundberg joined Lilly in 2010 as EVP of science and technology and president of LRL. According to Lundberg, the fact that Lechleiter is a scientist (the only top 10 pharma CEO who can make such a claim) was one of the key deciding factors in his decision to join Lilly.
More impressive than Lundberg’s CV is one of his hobbies, endurance exercise, which he feels helps him in drug discovery R&D. Here’s why.
Drug discovery is challenging, requiring perseverance, which necessitates persistent training. Lundberg achieves this through endurance exercise, which culminates in his annual participation in the world’s oldest, biggest, and longest cross country ski race, The Vasa — a 90 km test of endurance taking him 8 to 10 hours to complete. Having done this for 25 consecutive years, he analogizes it to drug discovery R&D. “There is a halfway point in which you want to give up, but if you continue, you can easily do twice as much,” he states. Failures in drug discovery can be just as demoralizing, but you need to press on and do the extra experiment. An advocate of embracing challenges as something to be conquered, not avoided, Lundberg’s 15-member LRL leadership team strives to make the impossible, possible.
A View Behind Closed Doors
While touring the labs with my colleague, Ed Miseta, chief editor for Outsourced Pharma and Clinical Leader, along with Peter Loftus, The Wall Street Journal; Brett Chase, Scrip Intelligence; J.K. Wall, Indianapolis Business Journal; Jeff Swiatek, Indianapolis Star; and national CBS and Fox TV station local affiliates, members of the LRL were very open, candid, and accommodating, as were the scientists who explained their research. For example, Ronald DeMattos, Ph.D., who has been working on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease for 15+ years, showed me slide images of cells from a mouse brain with Alzheimer’s. Steve Ruberg, demonstrated what he described as the “largest iPad in the western hemisphere,” how he and his team are using computer modeling and simulation, predictive analytics, and data mining and analysis to improve clinical study design. Alex Godfrey, Ph.D. walked me through the only fully integrated remote access chemistry lab in the world — the Automated Synthesis Lab, answering questions and educating me on the importance of learning from failures.
It was last November 2012 that I wrote the cover feature story, Eli Lilly and Company — Open For Innovation, based on interview with Alan Palkowitz, VP of discovery chemistry and member of the LRL team (see photo). During our discussion, he explained Lilly’s Open Innovation Drug Discovery (OIDD) platform. I find it interesting that many companies are touting being open to innovation, but only one (Lilly) has opened its doors to demonstrate how it is going about it.