GlaxoSmithKline boss rethinking R&D incentives, as Barron and Sin seek out early and late-stage opportunities

Emma Walmsley
Emma Walmsley. (GlaxoSmithKline)

GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley has been in the hot seat for around a year, and while announcing the company's first-quarter results this week had new CSO Hal Barron by her side, as the two hinted at possible changes in R&D incentives, and what another new hire made last week could bring to the pipeline.

Walmsley took charge last spring, succeeding longtime CEO Sir Andrew Witty, who it seems was politely pushed out as the U.K.’s biggest drugmaker sought an injection of new blood.

There were some qualms over whether Walmsley, with a background in consumer healthcare and not biopharma R&D, could deliver on a new research direction and reinvigorate a relatively insipid pipeline.   

Walmsley said in the Big Pharma’s first-quarter earnings call on Wednesday morning that one way it could help its internal research would be to use new incentives: “In R&D, as part of our diagnosis, we’ve been thinking very carefully about incentivizing the right kind of behaviors around building the value of the pipeline, and progressing not just as many things as possible, but progressing the right scaled medicines that are going to have the impact not just for patients, but also on shareholder returns.”

More info on that, and in general on its R&D, in the second quarter, Walmsley says. And while the next quarter seems to be pregnant with research direction updates (and coming after Walmsley has axed dozens of projects and sold off others in the past year in some bold R&D moves), its new chief scientific officer and research chief Barron, a Roche and Calico veteran, did give some hints on what these may be.

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Regarding the recent hire of another Roche veteran, Kevin Sin, as SVP and head of worldwide business development for pharmaceuticals R&D, Barron said: “We’re very excited Kevin has decided to join us; he is a very, very thoughtful business and development professional, as well as a fantastic leader, and I’m personally very excited that I’m working closely with him.

“His expertise is of course both in oncology and also technology, and we’ll be able to take advantage of that expertise over the coming years, and more to come on that in Q2.” He added that Sin will be based in San Francisco, where Barron will also be, and not in GSK’s traditional English R&D home of Stevenage, but that this “allows him to have global access to really innovative science and opportunities that exist not just on the West Coast, but throughout the U.S. and globally.”

GSK already has a foothold in HIV/infectious disease and respiratory but wants to grow its oncology and immune-inflammation units. The cancer focus is somewhat of a turnaround for GSK, which in 2014 under Witty traded away most of its oncology assets in exchange for the Novartis vaccines stable in a multibillion-dollar deal.

He adds that while Sin has experience in oncology, with analysts on the call asking how he will be a part of the company’s drive to build out a bigger cancer pipeline, he too has experience in technology platforms. 

In terms of pipeline plays, Barron says: “What we’re most likely to be excited about is early-stage, as well as potentially late-stage research opportunities, as well as those that could be cutting-edge technology that could help us leverage existing projects that we have in-house at this time.” GSK does not, however, appeared geared toward a major M&A deal anytime soon. 

Barron also briefly, and with no follow-up (you guessed it, more on that on Q2), added that while he was very impressed with the scientific advances made in the DPUs (R&D discovery performance units, implemented a few years back now that did number around 30 at one time), “I think we have some work to do in terms of how to translate that efficiently into drugs, but there’s some great science underpinning what’s coming out.”

Barron says that, having only joined in January, he’s still combing through GSK’s R&D books, which over the years have been pretty stale in terms of new and exciting projects, as well as M&A deals. One product he is excited about, however, is its BCMA asset.

This experimental antibody drug conjugate, in early trials for multiple myeloma, excites Barron given its threefold mechanism of action, including that it appears to engage the immune system in a way they don’t understand as yet but could lead to “pretty profound efficacy.”

It’s targeting a 2020 launch and includes the launch of a pivotal program later this year, with combo tests also on the cards, which Barron hopes could see it gain the more lucrative first-line therapy approval down the line, which GSK is “aggressively pursuing.”

Keep an eye out in the second quarter for what should be meatier R&D updates from Sin and Barron.