By Ben Comer, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
In late October, I attended the Galien Forum at the Alexandria Center in New York City, a one-day conference featuring biotech and Big Pharma CEOs, members of Congress, investors, R&D leaders (an obesity science panel featured a who’s who of development heads — check the Life Science Leader website for additional forum coverage), academics, and U.S. health agency leaders. The Galien Forum has earned a reputation for spicy moderators and snappy audience Q&As, and this year did not disappoint, although I regret not asking Lilly CEO David Ricks — who railed against the IRA’s (“a huge green energy subsidy”) privileging of biologics over small molecules in price negotiations — why Lilly would purchase DICE Therapeutics, a small molecule company, for $2.4 billion, if the law was truly causing a retreat from small molecule development. Some other time, perhaps.
Life Science Leader’s December issue is chock full of executives speculating on the opportunities and challenges the biopharmaceutical industry will face next year, with excellent contributions from my colleagues across the Life Science Connect family of publications, to whom I am grateful. At the Galien Forum, I looked forward to a fireside chat with Alex Gorsky, former chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson (J&J), a leader known for his attention to public health issues and focus on DEI initiatives, including a $100 million pledge to fight health inequities facing communities of color in the U.S. What would be required of biopharma leadership in 2024? What individual backgrounds and special skills would leaders need to thrive during the “worst-ever time for capital investment, and best-ever time for science,” as John Maraganore, founding CEO of Alnylam, had described the scene earlier that morning?
The tunnels and traffic into New York City yield to no one, and when the time came for Gorsky’s chat, he wasn’t in the building. J&J’s new EVP, pharmaceuticals, R&D, John Reed, graciously left the coffee line to fill in on stage, but Gorsky did manage to arrive a few minutes after the discussion got going. Both Reed and Gorsky were asked about the importance of leadership in establishing a culture that can both sustain innovation and remain intact through multiple acquisitions, and both leaned on the importance of J&J’s credo, crafted in 1943 by General Robert Wood Johnson, as an orienting principle; Reed noted that “culture eats strategy for lunch,” and Gorsky made the observation that, contrary to popular belief, many successful Big Pharma CEOs come from a “simple background” that includes experiences in blue-collar jobs. Those jobs demonstrate the nobility of hard work, wherever it occurs, and the necessity of learning from workers at every level of an organization, especially at the bottom.
As for the skills to pay the bills in 2024, Reed said being conversant in AI and machine learning is becoming a requirement for leaders, and Gorsky said the bar has been raised on knowing when, where, and how to weigh in on social and political issues. “Being comfortable and finding your voice are important for leaders, now and in the future,” said Gorsky. Easier said than done.