GSK bets on tech to help boost lagging R&D as it looks to start 23andMe trial

Emma Walmsley
GSK CEO Emma Walmsley (GSK)

As the dust settles on another busy and ruinously expensive four days at the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, GlaxoSmithKline’s CEO Emma Walmsley took some time out on the sidelines to talk R&D.

Since taking over from Sir Andrew Witty a few years back and proceeding to shake up the pharma's R&D focus and leadership, what’s become clear is the new-look GSK is making its bed with tech companies and adhering to a tech outlook.

One of the new appointments has been Hal Barron, head of R&D at GSK and alumnus of Roche and Calico, who has remained based in San Francisco and not in GSK’s U.K. headquarters, with the plan being that some of that embedded tech culture in the region can take root within the Big Pharma.

Glaxo is a big entity but is seen as a laggard when it comes to R&D compared to its peers; Walmsley checked out projects early on she didn’t think would fit and has been signing deals with the likes of 23andMe, originally a DNA testing firm that has branched out rapidly into developing and out-licensing its own drugs.

Speaking to the Financial Times after JPM, Walmsley said GSK and 23andMe have now picked their first drug target and expect to kick-start a clinical trial by year-end. The company penned a $300 million deal with the consumer genetics testing firm two years back and is now seeing some tangible effects.

Walmsley tells the FT that a big driver of this deal was for it to help shore up GSK’s R&D productivity, predominately by providing genetic information as a way to eventually reach new and, in terms of what it’s looking for, better trial participants.

But details are sparse: We don’t know what target the two have agreed on for this first trial, or how well 23andMe has been helping GSK thus far with its trial and R&D work.

Walmsley told the FT her strategy of having an R&D head in San Francisco is paying off in the form of the ability to build partnerships and bring on machine learning experts in an industry that was “going to be disrupted by technology.”

This dovetails with its venture on Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences arm, which is working on bioelectronics. (Although Verily has in recent years seen discord at the top along with an exodus of talent.)

The latent power of artificial intelligence, machine learning and the financial might of Google are all trendy right now, but there’s still a lot to prove; we’ll have to wait and see whether Barron and Walmsley's big bets can come off.