People, R&D

GSK déjà vu: Time for a top-down switch as new CEO tries to conquer old R&D demons

Close to a decade ago, GSK CEO Andrew Witty and R&D chief Moncef Slaoui decided they needed to do something new and different to fire up a lackluster R&D group, looking to shock a system where researchers were far too focused on hanging on to unpromising drugs.

Now, new CEO Emma Walmsley says she has inherited the exact same problem they vowed to fix.

Walmsley notes the company needs new blockbuster drugs that can bring in more than a billion dollars each if she expects to liven things up on the bottom line. Analysts (hello, GSK) have been saying the same thing for years, shaking their heads over the drug approvals that did come through without much chance of changing the game in the diseases they addressed.

The CEO immediately pointed to the same source of the problem as her predecessors: it’s the R&D group’s fault, where investigators are too entrenched around the wrong assets.

“If you’ve been working on an asset for decades in R&D it’s very hard to decide it isn’t important enough to take forward . . . so it’s not surprising that people’s human motivation is to keep progressing stuff,” the CEO said in an interview with the Financial Times.

Walmsley’s decision to shake things up comes with new authority for her pharma chiefs — Jack Bailey and Luke Miels — to start calling the shots on what the priorities should be.  Witty and Slaoui came up with DPUs, or Discovery Performance Units, saying that each team had to justify their existence at the end of the first three years, or else.

‘Or else’ turned out to be some new assignments, for a few researchers, though there was also plenty of disruption with a major swap with Novartis or the US layoffs that followed the R&D group’s poor performance.

Now, rather than looking for a bottom-up approach to innovation, GSK will go with a top-down standard as Walmsley kicks loose 30 programs and adds new cancer and immuno-inflammatory drugs as she shifts focus to the key US market.

GSK also recently decided to shutter a neurosciences R&D group in Shanghai, another legacy of the Witty/Slaoui regime. What comes next?

The big question for Walmsely will be whether she can bring new life to a torpid and unproductive research arm that has been hammered by repeated cutbacks. For the rank and file, it’s time to face an old reality — again.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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