GSK beefs up board-level science expertise ahead of CEO change

Panel also features leading infectious disease scientist and former Merck CFO.(GSK)

When Emma Walmsley was named as the next CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, investors welcomed her commercial acumen but pointed to a lack of experience in an R&D-driven company. 

It appears the drugmaker has responded, announcing a shake-up of its board and the creation of a science committee packed with R&D experts that will be chaired by former FDA chief scientist Jesse Goodman.

Walmsley takes over from exiting CEO Sir Andrew Witty at the end of March and is the first woman to lead a top-tier pharma multinational, but cut her teeth in a consumer environment, spending 17 years at French cosmetics group L'Oréal before joining GSK in 2010.

Analysts at Citi noted the lack of R&D credentials shortly after Walmsley's appointment, but said "this does not preclude [her] ability to materially improve R&D returns, so long as she has the appetite/intent to critically assess GSK's R&D outcomes and add senior external pharmaceutical and R&D hires."

The new science committee certainly provides a wealth of experience in medical science and pharma management. Goodman is an active clinician—he is currently Professor of Medicine at Georgetown University and attending physician in infectious diseases—and has previously held the post of director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER).

Alongside Goodman will be Sir Roy Anderson, professor of infectious disease at Imperial College London, as well as Judy Lewent, formerly chief financial officer at Merck & Co. and a recognized expert in licensing and acquisition strategy. The committee will also have "a further scientific and medical expert" added at some point, said GSK.

The drugmaker is also switching around its executive board, with GSK's president of R&D Patrick Vallance taking a seat ahead of the upcoming retirement of global vaccines chief and board member Moncef Slaoui who along with Sir Andrew will step down from the board on March 31.

After her appointment Walmsley herself recalled that she had qualms about leaving L'Oréal to join GSK in 2010, asking herself at the time whether it was a risky move and if she was suitably qualified. But she has packed considerable experience into her six years at the drugmaker, including stints running its business in China and heading up its European and then global consumer health operations.

The creation of the new science committee shows that despite its diversified structure, bundling innovative pharmaceuticals with low-price, high-volume vaccines and consumer health products, R&D remains at the heart of the company.