Friday, December 05, 2008

Is Biotech Running GSK?

"Smaller, biotech-like units" have been the name of the game at GlaxoSmithKline ever since the CEDDs (Centers of Excellence for Drug Discovery), round one, were announced post-merger in 2000.

Fast-forward eight years and now it's not just biotech's size that's influencing the pharma giant. These days biotech CEOs are showing GSK pod-chiefs how to run an R&D business--and, since earlier this week, one is running part of GSK himself.

Christoph Westphal, former-CEO of Sirtris, which GSK acquired for $720 million in April (one of our Deals of the Year Nominees), will now head up the externally-focused CEDD (or CEEDD), along with Sirtris' VP Corporate Development Michelle Dipp. While remaining at Sirtris' premises, Westphal will "challenge the norm and stretch us to consider new ways of working" in drug discovery, according to GSK's head of Discovery Patrick Vallance.

The idea is that Westphal’s experience founding, running and investing in biotech will help the CEEDD attract promising assets into GSK’s pipeline via alliances and partnerships.

Westphal’s appointment isn’t the first of incoming CEO Andrew Witty’s attempts to infuse the group with biotech-like management, accountability and creativity. Ian Tomlinson, former CEO of Domantis (which GSK acquired in 2007 to beef up its next-generation biologics capabilities) is a senior R&D exec at the Big Pharma. And earlier this year, Witty invited Actelion CEO Jean-Paul Clozel to talk to GSK CEDD heads about how biotech manages research—and give them a few lessons from one of Europe’s few biotech success stories. (Actelion has since signed a deal with GSK on sleep drug almorexant.)

The moves make sense. GSK’s CEDDs are supposed to be run as more or less autonomous units with their own P&L responsibility, but structure alone doesn’t create a mindset. Thus far the CEDDs haven’t exactly revolutionized Glaxo’s pipeline, even though several other Big Pharma, including Roche and Pfizer are trying similar things. “The challenge is to make the CEDD heads entrepreneurial,” comments one analyst--and to incent them to perform, or else.

Witty’s June announcement of the latest CEDD-like iteration, 50-person-strong Drug Performance Units focused on specific biological pathways and competing internally for resources, sends a clear message: We’re no longer just pretending to be like biotech, cushioned within a comfortable, cash-rich bureaucracy. We are a series of biotechs.

And as is abundantly clear out in the real biotech world, there ain’t many safety nets about.

jacket image by flickr user ckount used under a creative commons license

No comments: