GlaxoSmithKline has been having more than its share of ups and downs over the last few years. In 2014, they moved a lot of assets out of oncology, as part of a general rearrangement into higher-volume lower-cost areas. That was a pretty bold move – give management credit for not being timid, at least – and there were plenty of out-and-out cutbacks as well (such as the closure of the RTP site).
Not all of these moves were popular with the company’s investors, and there were calls for CEO Andrew Witty’s job. Those wishes came true in March of 2016, when Witty announced that he would step down as CEO, followed by their head of the vaccines division (and former R&D head) Moncef Slaoui. Emma Walmsley, coming in through the Consumer Care part of the company, moved into that role, and officially took over this year. Back in July, the company announced a shakeup in R&D, at least some of which seemed to be a further admission that the previous strategy just didn’t seem to be working out. Witty and Slaoui have both taken the traditional route into venture capital and sitting on the boards of various other companies (although in Slaoui’s case, one of those board appointments seemed to last only about ten minutes, for some reason.
Patrick Vallance had taken over from Slaoui as R&D chair in the 2014 rearrangement, but he’s now heading out the door as well. And his replacement (to some surprise in the industry) is Hal Barron, ex-Genentech/Roche and now ex-Calico, the Google anti-aging startup. It’s been hard to figure what’s going on over at that last one over the last couple of years, or in general, but Barron’s departure has to rank as interesting news. Who will the Google/Calico organization bring in as a replacement?
An ex-GSK friend said to me “It’s kind of odd that Witty came from pharma and wanted to emphasize consumer, whereas Walmsley has come from consumer and wants to emphasize pharma”, and he’s got a point there. It’s going to be hard not to think of the last ten years or so at the company as something of a lost decade. There have been successes, but not nearly as many as there were supposed to be, and a number of big ideas from that era have been unwound. The R&D organization that looked so much to the executives like it needed to be shaken up probably doesn’t look as bad in retrospect, either. Too late for that.