The R&D radical
Chairman, research and development
GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) is pursuing arguably the most radical reinvention of all the Big Pharmas of how it discovers and develops new drugs. And Moncef Slaoui, the company's chairman of research and development since June 2006, has played an influential role in that transformation as one of its major architects.
Rather than outsource R&D outright, Slaoui, a molecular biologist and immunologist by training, CEO Andrew Witty and Patrick Vallance turned to biotechnology startups for some inspiration. They reorganized the company's research organization into 38 separate, small units of scientists that must defend their progress and seek continued funding every three years after a review.
The ideas Slaoui and his team are implementing are unprecedented in Big Pharma, and the industry is watching closely. Everyone wants to know whether small research groups in a big organization are more nimble and generate more efficient, internal R&D. Success could also reshape how much GSK and its peers conduct in-house R&D, and what is partnered off to smaller, nimble biotechs and academic researchers. Nothing more than the future of how drug development is conducted is at stake here.
Failure for GSK's Discovery Performance Units means they may be disbanded, and the resources will be shifted to new or other drug development efforts. Demotions or declining company stature is also possible without results. But the research units now get lots more financial attention, at least as first. While overall funding for discovery spending at GSK is down, far more of the remaining cash that's left is devoted to development work.
"The four key principles that underpin everything we have done in R&D for the past 5 years are: focus on the best science, re-personalize R&D, externalize R&D and focus on return on investment," Slaoui explained to the WSJ in October about the program.
Has it worked? Some GSK investigators told Bloomberg that the program has slashed the amount of time taken to commit to a development program. Research teams also share resources. Another told The Times that the review questions were harsh, but helpful. But the jury is still out. Given the slow pace of development overall, this is one experiment that probably has much further to run than most analysts realize.