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Running Novartis

I didn’t have time yesterday to go into any detailed thoughts on the news from Novartis, so I thought I’d put up a few today. Overall, you have to say that Novartis research over the last ten years or so has been pretty productive, and the company has also managed to avoid both Big Job-Slashing Upheavals (well, for the most part) and Whopping Mega-Mergers during that time. It’s not that Novartis hasn’t gotten rid of people – they most certainly have – but overall, there doesn’t seem to be quite as much chop-n-burn compared to other companies their size (see GSK, Merck, AstraZeneca, and a depressingly long list more for examples). And at the same time, they’ve hired people, too. I have no idea of what their R&D head count is compared to ten years ago – doubtless smaller, because does any big drug company have more R&D staff now than they did in 2005? But I’d be willing to be that it’s a less dramatic difference than most (maybe all) of their peers.

Now to the science. As commenters to yesterday’s post pointed out, Mark Fishman came into the company under a banner of transformative science. He wasn’t alone, and still isn’t – a lot of R&D heads have that song playing when they first enter the building, and many of them even mean it. But I’m pretty sure that if you time-traveled back to 2004 and showed Fishman (and his then-boss, Daniel Vasella) a picture of how research would be done at Novartis in the distant days of 2015, they might be a bit disappointed that things didn’t change more than they did. I’m not assigning blame. von Moltke (the elder one) originated the line about how no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy – his didn’t, although a lot of other people had gotten their hands on it by then. And so it goes with big plans to reorganize drug research. The enemy, in our case, is the same as ever: biochemical reality, dang it, full of exceptions, complications, snags, and delays.

So we’ll see what’s on Jay Bradner’s flag as he takes over. That will depend, at least partly, on what the higher-ups at Novartis would like to see on it, because they’re not going to hire someone who will deviate too far from what they think is sound policy, naturally. There are several possibilities. When the grand research pooh-bah departs suddenly, you can expect the replacement to come in with a broom on one shoulder. That’s why they were hired, to shake things up and sweep out the dust. That happens often enough that every big managerial change sends waves of trepidation through an organization, because, to a first approximation, that’s one of the things that big managerial changes are for.

So that’s one possible path. If that’s going to be the way it goes, then look for the traditional months-long process of “Just What Exactly Is Going On Around Here, Anyway?” to start up shortly. Something like it might start up regardless, though, on a smaller and less strenuous scale, just to give Bradner himself a tour of the research organization as it stands, so people shouldn’t necessarily panic. After all, he’s coming in as Fishman takes a (pretty much expected) retirement – this isn’t one of those executive defenestrations where the old boss lands halfway to the parking lot in a shower of PowerPoint printouts, and is chased from the premises, pelted with chunky clear plastic award dinguses bearing instructive legends such as “Power Team Leadership” and “Innovative Organizational Focus”.

That means that another path is possible: Stay the Course. This is less common, but then again, Novartis has more reason to stay the course than most companies. (Believe me, a lot of them are frantically grabbing the wheel, trying to do anything else but stay the damned course, only to find that the company steers like a trainload of iron ore). In this case, Bradner will have been brought in because the company likes his worldview and thinks he can keep things rolling along. I tend to think that this is what’s actually going on, but we’ll see.

Running a research organization the size of Novartis will be a challenge, although Bradner has been dealing with some pretty hefty bureaucracies himself over the years, experience that will come in handy. It’ll still be an adjustment. He’ll have some constituencies that no one in academia ever really has, and the whole focus of an industrial research operation is, in the end, just different from that of an academic institution. (That’s as it should be; they have different purposes). There will be suspicions, no doubt, that the new guy just doesn’t get it, but since the very same doubts hovered around Fishman himself when he came on, that shouldn’t be as much of a problem at Novartis as it would be in some other organizations.

The road ahead may look wide, but it can be surprisingly narrow, and there are deep ditches on both sides of it. These represent (for example) letting projects go on too long, and the opposite error as well of expecting them to deliver too soon. And they can be letting things get stagnant, as opposed to the other ditch you run into by shaking things up constantly. Or one ditch can be spreading your R&D too thinly, where nothing has the critical mass to every really get done, while the ditch on the other side of the road is putting all your money down on that one big project that’s just sure to work, because everyone involved is so smart and works so hard. Oh yeah, there are all kinds of ways for this stuff not to work. But in the end, if Jay Bradner’s research organization can deliver drugs that are useful enough that people will actually be willing to pay money for them, then he’ll be just fine. Best wishes to him.

21 comments on “Running Novartis”

  1. Peter Kenny says:

    No battle plan could survive contact with a meddlesome Kaiser with a withered arm…

  2. MoBio says:

    I wish him luck–he’s a great scientist.

  3. Anon says:

    As Mike Tyson discovered (and taught): “everyone has a battle plan – until they get punched in the face”

  4. Magrinho says:

    Or as the philosopherTyson said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

  5. Magrinho says:

    Beaten to the punch! Great minds think alike.

  6. NIBR Vet says:

    Novartis is not what it was in 2002, and Joe Jimenez is as different as it can get from Dan Vasella…and Joerg Reinhardt is now the Chairman…and he thinks he knows what is best for Novartis R&D….speaking of a lamb in the wolves’ den…Good Luck Dr Bradner, you will need it

  7. Keep Calm and Synthesize On says:

    As Darwin is attributed: ‘It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one most adaptable to change’.
    Change is inevitable, but Dr. Bradner seems to value the medicinal chemist, which makes this Novartian think positively about the future at NIBR, at least at this moment in time…

  8. MoMo says:

    Dr. Bradner,

    If you are reading this, two words of advice “More Molecules”!

    And where do they come from? More Chemists!

    Good Luck to you and all of Novartis!

  9. Andy II says:

    Don’t get me wrong. I really hope Bradner will make NIBR great place for innovation thru fruitful collaborations among academic/pharma’s and actually will produce valuable drugs.

    I was wondering why these respectable pharma companies choose Head of R&D/Innovation from academic people. As you recall, Merck picked Peter Kim from MIT, Sanofi chose former National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias Zerhouni (who went NIH from Johns Hopkins Med School), Roche recruited Sanford-Burnham CEO John Reed to Head Pharma Research, and could be others. As many pointed out, if they wanted to make impacts, they would have to make some changes in the organization. And, what is the probability of success for these “changes”? If they wanted to stay the course which are already on-going as they intended to not make too much changes (aka destructions/conflict), how would they be evaluated? That is a difficult transition, not scientifically but something else. Hope he will make a right decision: what to keep what needs to be changed.

    1. MoBio says:

      As this has happened with many companies I can only surmise that they all have been getting advice from the same consulting firm. It’s an interesting experiment they are all doing–I hope they succeed but fear that this will not result in the salvation they are looking for.

  10. steve says:

    So my take on the reason why they hire academics is because they recognize that academia is where the innovation is. The problem is that large pharma has forgotten that the reason innovation flourishes in academia is because of academic freedom. You can’t micromanage innovation. Having an academic at the head and a bunch of MBA’s in the middle still won’t allow the scientists at the bottom to innovate.

  11. Experienced chemist says:

    It it thrilled for nibr to get such a tremendous leader. I don’t have first in hand information for Jay. I don’t have direct contact with him either. What I know is about the same as you know. Jay is a super star in oncology research. He is using multiple pronged and systemic strategy to discover, develop and manufacture novel cancer medicines. He has achieved a lot at such early age. His potential is unlimited. It is natural for him to rein in such a well established organization. With the resources and talents in nibr, he can unleash his ability. When he comes to aboard, his hands might be tied because the board members are always watching him from the top. He wouldn’t do whatever he wants. He does have lots of freedom to operate . It is not about his personal ideas anymore. It

  12. anon says:

    @MoMo regarding medicinal chemistry. He worked with a lot of medicinal chemists at the Broad/DFCI (one could say is fame was initiated by a medicinal chemist, Jun Qi). Hopefully he keeps with this philosophy at Novartis.

  13. MoMo says:

    Anon- Make Drugs- Not Probes!

    Probes are compounds that can’t be drugs and are relegated to second class molecular status.

  14. Brace says:

    @anon – thanks for the link.

    Bound to be some uncertainty at Novartis but wow, I’ve never heard any GSK manager speak that way about Med Chem.

    Good luck to you all.

  15. anon says:

    @MoMo – I agree that drugs are the goal, and I wasn’t trying to imply otherwise. I disagree that probes are second class molecular status (indeed, many selective drugs are also probes). Though there are far too many junk probes out there (perhaps the majority of purported ones?), the good ones (like JQ1) are needed to establish new therapeutic hypotheses and de-risk targets/strategies for the real drug developers in industry. Anyway, you have to admire Jay’s enthusiasm for med chem.

  16. Anon11 says:

    What happened to Vasella anyways? It looks like all he is doing is directing XBiotech…and it isnt’ looking like this one is going to salvage his reputation.

    As far as another MD running research, I’m not convinced it will work out. I’ve seen too many MDs ride the coattails other’s discoveries and then ride the backs of their postdocs to push their names to the top of the heap (*cough* Laurence Cooper *cough*).
    Typically they can manage groups up to about 10-15, but I rarely see them successful beyond that. The know-it all ego and the need to be in control of everything just doesn’t lend itself very well outside of an operating room or an academic lab. Just look at most hospitals and hospital systems. Very few MDs are the CEO or COO and that should be their bread and butter.

  17. wizzy says:

    Just to correct the record on JQ1, see

    True super stars in oncology research do not need to pretend to have invented a molecule.

  18. Sim says:

    ‘Typically they can manage groups up to about 10-15, but I rarely see them successful beyond that. The know-it all ego and the need to be in control of everything just doesn’t lend itself very well outside of an operating room or an academic lab. Just look at most hospitals and hospital systems. Very few MDs are the CEO or COO and that should be their bread and butter’

    As a physician(MD)/scientist myself, I have to disagree with this statement. Having worked in big US and European academic hospitals, I had many MD bosses. For example, what about your regular/standard department heads? Hopkins Dept of Anesthesia has > 90 MD anesthesiologists, research labs and this is only anesthesia, so running this operation requires some managing skills I suppose…The former CEO of Hopkins was Ed Miller, guess, an anesthesiologist = MD. How big is Hopkins? One of the most inspirational leaders I had the chance to work with was Francis Colardyn, of the University Hospital of Ghent. Belgium (6000 employees, > 1000 bed hospital). He was a great physician and became an inspirational CEO later on.
    Of course there are egotistic/maniacal MDs who think they can push people around in the lab the way they curse they way through the OR, but this is becoming rare. It’s certainly true that ‘sense of entitlement’ issues are more abundant among MDs, and it’s unjustifiable. However, I find that you have great scientist and lab managers among MDs, chemists, biologists, physicists…. The true visionary leaders admit their own weaknesses and try to find people complementary to their skills.

  19. Lauralee says:

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  20. anonii says:

    with all the talk about bringing medicinal chemistry back to industry with a hire like this it is interesting that no one has commented on whizzy’s post and the fact that the medicinal chemistry was already done on jq1 overseas – just brought in house and popularized. not unlike how pharma views med chem here. coincidence?

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