Career Supplement | The View From The Top

D at a pharmaceutical company.

Charles Choi
Jun 19, 2005
<p></p>

More than one path can lead to a job as head of R&D at a pharmaceutical company. Some scientists arrive from academia or medicine, while others work their way up from within the industry. Yet only a handful of men and women will make it to the top. What does it take to get there, and what's it like once you do?

The Scientist interviewed four pharma R&D chiefs to find out. The consensus: Top-down, centralized management is on its way out, and solid scientific credentials and business savvy are key to success in R&D leadership – along with a willingness to work very, very hard. And it's just as important to know when to call it quits as it is to push ahead.

1 WHAT SKILLS AND EXPERIENCES ARE IMPORTANT FOR RESEARCH LEADERSHIP?

John LaMattina (JL): There are fundamental skill sets that one can find in texts – good...

2 WHAT'S THE OUTLOOK FOR R&D AT YOUR COMPANY AND IN GENERAL?

JL: The regulatory approval process will continue to be a challenging one, requiring higher hurdles to demonstrate patient safety and efficacy.... The continued escalation and cost of R&D will drive a premium on earlier and critical decision-making on Pfizer's candidate selection process.

RR: We have a huge Phase 3 pipeline – in fact, our problem is managing a very large Phase 3 pipeline. For Wyeth, the outlook is pretty good.... I don't believe that the kinds of investment that have been made in R&D by most large companies in the past are going to be made in the future. For the industry, R&D is going to need to find new ways of doing discovery and development.

HW: The blockbuster model led to key features and cultures within the industry and now many say that blockbuster model is dead. Whether or not the blockbuster era is over, the industry now has to deal with a changing landscape, one that forecasts an increasingly competitive environment.

Johnson & Johnson is uniquely positioned to close the innovation gap because of the broad scope of our capabilities including expertise in small molecules, biologics/biomedicines, and delivery technologies. In addition, the broad scope of the Johnson & Johnson businesses in medical devices, diagnostic studies, and consumer products gives us a unique capability to fully exploit the trends in individualized patient care. As an example, we are working with colleagues from the diagnostics businesses of Johnson & Johnson to develop strategies where new drugs are targeted for use in patients identified by a blood test as having an optimal benefit-risk profile for that drug. We also have collaborations with the Johnson & Johnson device companies to develop convergence technologies in which devices make drugs better and drugs can improve devices.

3 WHAT CAREER PATH WOULD YOU ADVISE OTHERS TO FOLLOW IN ORDER TO BECOME A LEADER IN R&D?

RR: People early in their career, whether they're in the pharmaceutical industry or in academia, need to focus not on becoming heads of R&D, or chairpersons of a department, or heads of medicine, they need to focus on their science... you've got to have that part to advance. You've got to be a credible scientist.

RT: If they're an academic and want more and more opportunities in future to sample how science and/or medicine is practiced in the industry setting, someone who's based in academic science and medicine can do that by collaborations with industry. One criticism of academic science is that scientists become insulated and so focused on one problem, surrounded by people who look like themselves.

HW: Almost all of us in R&D have strong educational backgrounds and experience in a technical field, but few of us have general business and management education and experience. These are just as important, and I encourage anyone interested in attaining a leadership position to seek experience and personal development in learning management and leadership skills. It's also important to gain awareness and build relationships in other areas of the pharmaceutical business, including manufacturing, marketing, and sales.

4 WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND MOST SURPRISING ABOUT BEING A LEADER IN R&D?

JL: I continuously am surprised about how powerful my influence is. It's hard these days not to say something off the cuff and have it misrepresented or misinterpreted.

RR: How much time you need to spend on managing budgets, and how little fun the job is.

HW: I was not prepared for the rapid pace of change and the realization that what worked to bring success in the past cannot always be used as a guide to the future. This goes against the grain of what many of us believe, because we grow reliant on our past experience. However, I've learned that past experience can constrain our thinking and close off seeing new possibilities.

5 WHAT IS CHANGING IN PHARMA? WHAT EXPERIENCES ARE UNIQUE TO THIS FIELD?

JL: The consolidation that has occurred in the pharmaceutical industry has created R&D organizations larger than even imagined. As a result, it is impossible to manage every aspect of such large organizations. A leader must provide a vision and set the framework, but must be able to empower others to lead.

HW: In the past, organizations were hierarchical and managed centrally from the top. The head of R&D was an omniscient leader who made all the final decisions. Today, the world is far too complex for any one individual to have all the answers. One needs to create an environment of collaboration, teamwork, openness, and sharing in which sensible risk-taking is not only tolerated, but encouraged, to ensure creativity and innovation by employees.

RT: There's a real convergence of commercial strategy and R&D strategy to address marketplace demand much more effectively, with medicines based on a good compelling rationale, not just intensive marketing or the possibility of benefits for a small number of patients. Because of the economics healthcare will continue to face, that evidence-based medicine will show a clearly defined medical need is critical.

<p/>

John LaMattina is President of Pfizer Global Research and Development. He began his career at Pfizer as an organic synthetic chemist in 1977 and has held numerous positions in drug discovery and development in his career.

Robert Ruffolo, Jr. is President of Research and Development at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. After completing a PhD in pharmacology and a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, he has spent nearly 30 years in the pharmaceutical industry. He came to Wyeth in 2000, after 17 years at GlaxoSmithKline.

Robert Tepper is President of Research and Development at Millennium, having joined in 1994. He directed the laboratory of tumor biology at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and helped found Cell Genesys with colleagues who later started Millennium.

Harlan Weisman is President of Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development. He is a cardiologist by training and was on the medical faculty at Johns Hopkins before coming to Centocor in 1990, where he became head of R&D. He became part of Johnson & Johnson when Centocor did in 1999.

Interested in reading more?

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?