When I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, one of my favorite sayings was, “Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.” In the March 2012 issue of Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, the authors of “Diagnosing The Decline In Pharmaceutical R&D Efficiency” describe the causes of the pharmaceutical industry’s R&D problems. They state their aim as being, “To provoke a more systematic analysis of the causes of the decline in R&D efficiency.”
In my opinion, a more systematic analysis is part of the problem and not part of the solution. The reason for the decline in pharmaceutical R&D productivity is simple — companies strayed away from their core ideology. For example, regulators became more cautionary because companies launched unsafe products. In one of the best-selling business books of all time, “Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,” authors James Collins and Jerry Porras identified 18 companies as visionary and attribute their enduring corporate success to having core values and a core purpose, which remains fixed. Only one pharmaceutical company, Merck, appeared on this list, published in 1994. In 1999, Merck launched the NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug), Vioxx, which was voluntarily withdrawn from the market for safety reasons in 2004. Documents reveal that the company was aware of the problem as early as March 2000. All of this took place under Mr. Raymond Gilmartin, who served as Merck’s CEO from 1994 to 2006. Today, Gilmartin, an adjunct professor at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Business Review blog contributor, believes that CEOs of many corporations have relied on a “flawed set of beliefs” which have “influenced them to place way too much emphasis on maximizing shareholder value and not enough on generating value for society.” As a former Merck employee and current shareholder, I agree with his assessment and wonder if he wishes he had done things differently during his tenure as CEO.
The solution — get back to the core ideology, which starts with focusing on what is best for the patient. A good place to start is for pharmaceutical companies to embrace charities, foundations, and advocacy groups, for they can provide ready access to a pool of patients interested in participating in clinical trials. Once perceived as a problem to be tolerated, these organizations have evolved into the solution to pharma’s R&D woes. Founded out of parent desperation and patient frustration, these groups seek products not profits, are highly focused, and are highly motivated to partner with industry to find treatments and cures. Perhaps, not-for-profits are just what the doctor ordered for stimulating pharma R&D, as well as helping pharma companies to get back to their core ideology — part of the solution, not part of the problem.