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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline

« An Off-Topic Ramble | Main | Differences Between Academia and Industry, Pt. 4 »

August 8, 2005

Room At the Top?

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Posted by Derek

Tangentially related to that last post is a thought that occurred to me while I was writing my monthly column for Contract Pharma magazine. It's on the place of chemists in a drug company, and in the scientific world in general. And what hit me was this: how many drug companies can you think of that are run by someone who came up through the med-chem department?

The only one I can think of, off the top of my head, is Vertex. (And that's because Joshua Boger left Merck to start his own company, so naturally he's the CEO.) But are there any examples of someone working their way up through the ranks?

Plenty of companies are run by M.D.s and MBAs. You don't see as many plain ol' PhDs. CEOs seem to come up through the clinical side and the marketing organization, but it's rare that one comes from the research side of a big drug company. And very few of that small group come from the chemistry department. Why might this be?

I'd like to think that the Jurgen explanation applies, and that we med-chemists are just too darn clever for top management. Frankly, that may be a little big of the explanation, but it's not enough of it to be useful. For one thing, some (not all) of those top managers are pretty brainy, and for another, I've known plenty of chemists who are dull enough for any job you could name.

I hate to advance this explanation, but perhaps part of the reason is social. There's a particular type of personality that tends to make it to the top of a large organization, and that profile doesn't overlap well with the types you find in research. There's some self-selection involved, too. Someone who makes it to the executive boardroom has most likely devoted most of their energy to getting there, and that's someone who would be unlikely to pursue a chemistry PhD. Why take the slow lane to power, or the scenic detour?

(Note: I'm aware that Margaret Thatcher has a chemistry degree - but it's not a doctorate, and she got out of the field pretty quickly and into politics.)

Comments (20) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Drug Industry History


COMMENTS

1. SRC on August 9, 2005 12:34 AM writes...

Thatcher has an undergraduate (i.e., bachelor's) degree; an MA from Oxford is automatically conferred as a matter of longevity after completing an honours undergraduate degree.

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2. Petros on August 9, 2005 3:21 AM writes...

Thatcher soon trained as a lawyer after a brief spell working as a chemist for a confectionary company (Mars?)

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3. Andrew Duffin on August 9, 2005 3:30 AM writes...

In the beginning, businesses were run by their owners.

Then, experts took over - engineers and scientists who actually knew how things were made. In those days, you chemists would have made it to the top - my father nearly did, in the 3M company, and perhaps would have done had he not retired early, and he was a PhD chemist.

After the experts, the bean-counters had a go - some companies to this day are run by accountants; they are easy to spot - they're very hot on compliance and never take risks.

It soon became apparent that the bean-counters were stifling creativity, so "professional" managers came next. In many places they are still in power; again they are fairly easy to spot: they know (or imagine they know) everything about management per se, but absolutely nothing about the things that make their businesses work.

This is not a recipe for success either, and the latest wave (MBA's) is merely a late-flowering remnant of the managerialist philosophy. MBA's know even more about management, and (if possible) even less about how things actually happen. This too will pass.

But I am afraid us techies (I include myself, as an ex-chemist IT techie) are at least two fad-generations too late to get to the top of anything.

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4. Jie on August 9, 2005 5:13 AM writes...

Speaking of chemists and politicians, as far as I know, the current German chancellor candidate Angela Merkel has also been worked in a chemistry research institute and got her Ph.D. there(so maybe pretty long in academia). What an amazing coincidence! Any interesting explanations u guys could come up with?

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5. daen on August 9, 2005 7:03 AM writes...

Thatcher has an undergraduate (i.e., bachelor's) degree; an MA from Oxford is automatically conferred as a matter of longevity after completing an honours undergraduate degree.
The graduate has to pay some nominal amount; three guineas seems to ring a bell.

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6. toby on August 9, 2005 9:17 AM writes...

Once you consider what a CEO at a large company actually does, it's clear why many come up through the marketing organization.

The job of a CEO at a publicly traded company is not to oversee operations, and as such, understanding chemistry confers no advantage. Their job is to put the best spin on every situation so as to keep the stock price rising.

This may sound overly cynical, and I'm sure it's not true in all cases, but there are many companies in any industry where to primary job of the CEO is to be a celebrity spokesperson to the investment community.

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7. bob23 on August 9, 2005 11:21 AM writes...

Close: Sir Richard Sykes, former head of Glaxo, holds a PhD in microbial biochemistry. He was reputed to quiz employees presenting projects to him on chemical structures.

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8. Tim on August 9, 2005 11:55 AM writes...

Most people trained in scientific fields are conditioned to be curious, introspective, and submissive to authority (usually by professors who have to deal with a new batch of kids each year). This is not the best enviroment for creating leaders. Which is why chemists and other scientific types don't make good lab managers as a rule; they's rather be fooling around with a new raw material.
I'm having a difficult time finding other industrial chemists who blog. This may be OT, but any reccomendations would be helpful. There seem to be a lot of PhD's doing post doc work out there, but I'd like to communicate with people who actually work in industrial labs. I'm starting to get worried that I'm the last bench chemist left on earth.

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9. jeet on August 9, 2005 12:39 PM writes...

I'm out here in biotech world and I see a fair number of PhD scientists running things, especially for the smaller companies. As for the big ones here are two
Arthur Levinson - Genentech
John Martin - Gilead



Why would med-chemists be better in running a drug company? Deep knowledge of clinical needs, finance, licensing, molecular biology, physician prescribing habits and capital markets? There are a lot of components in discovering, developing and sucessfully commercializing therapeutic compounds. I would hope that the CEOs are the ones who know how to either put these pieces together (for a start-up) or keep them running.

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10. daen on August 9, 2005 3:04 PM writes...

Plenty of companies are run by M.D.s and MBAs. You don't see as many plain ol' PhDs.
There's Maxygen, founded by Pim Stemmer (CSO) and Russ Howard (CEO), both PhDs. Richard Begley is CEO of Ensemble Discovery (a company started by Harvard's David R Liu, who has cropped up before on "In the Pipeline") and has a PhD in physics.
A quick scan of Danish companies reveals that Uli Hacksell, CEO of ACADIA, is a medicinal chemist by education while Patrick Dahlén, CEO of BioImage and acting CEO of DakoCytomation, has a PhD in biochemistry. Kirsten Drejer, CEO of Symphogen, is, I believe, a PhD qualified medicinal chemist.

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11. Stephanie on August 9, 2005 8:46 PM writes...

What about Sir Tom at AZ?

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12. Derek Lowe on August 9, 2005 8:59 PM writes...

You're right about him - I stand corrected! There are still not so many of us, but more than I'd thought. . .

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13. Greg Hlatky on August 9, 2005 9:38 PM writes...

Lee Raymond, outgoing chairman of ExxonMobil, has a Ph.D in chemical engineering. Bob Gower (now retired), who took several unwanted spun-off assets from Arco and made them into Lyondell Chemical, is also a Ph.D.

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14. George Bowman on August 10, 2005 6:04 PM writes...

Jack Welch is a Phd in Chemical Engineering from the University of Illinois. He claims that his PhD gave him the ability to "bathe in a complex idea and understand it." Welch had the total package -- smart, dedicated, and a great personality. Plus he was brash enough to reach for the brass ring and get it. It ain't often that you find this combination, but when you do, you get phenomenal results. He also had a big
focus on work and partly as a result has been
married three times. Everything in life has
trade off. What trade off are you willing to make?

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15. Derek Lowe on August 10, 2005 10:34 PM writes...

Not that one. My work is a big part of my life. But it's not my entire life, nor even bigger than the rest of the parts put together.

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16. SRC on August 11, 2005 12:17 AM writes...

Jack Welch is a Phd in Chemical Engineering from the University of Illinois. He claims that his PhD gave him the ability to "bathe in a complex idea and understand it."

Note that he does not broadcast his Ph.D. Gotta be a message there. Few who adulate him have any idea of the stain on him. A Ph.D. – good God!


Welch had the total package -- smart, dedicated, and a great personality.


And a flaming a-hole, by all accounts. Childish, impulsive, boorish, gratuitously brutal, a walking collection of unresolved issues, and, from what I've read (see At">http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0375705678/qid=1123732987/sr=12-1/104-1302978-7856703?v=glance&s=books">At Any Cost, by Thomas F. O'Boyle, and Testosterone">http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0471420050/ref=pd_sim_b_4/104-1302978-7856703?%5Fencoding=UTF8&v=glance">Testosterone Inc.: Tales of CEOs Gone Wild by Christopher M. Byron), a borderline sociopath. Not a man to be emulated, still less admired. It's a reflection of the intellectual poverty of businessmen that they think otherwise. It's like saying Hitler was smart, dedicated, and a great public speaker.
It ain't often that you find this combination, but when you do, you get phenomenal results.

O'Boyle characterizes Welch's contribution to GE as a hollowing out of a manufacturing company into a financial services one that can't make things anymore. See the link above.
He also had a big focus on work and partly as a result has been married three times.

No. His marital problems apparently did not result from his being a workaholic, but from being a childish, self-centered flamer. See the above.

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17. troy on August 11, 2005 11:31 PM writes...

It's like saying Hitler was smart, dedicated, and a great public speaker.

ha, ha, thats funny! you get two gold stars.

mr welch was on the tonight show once upon a time. he seemed ticked off that the spotlight wasn't on him cause it was on the movie stars and not on some lame sociopathic CEO.

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18. Mel on August 13, 2005 12:34 AM writes...

What I would like to see is a technical specialist who starts their own company, retains ownership, and hires a smart CEO to run it while they do what they want in the lab. As a thought experiment would a) the scientist get sucked into the business aspects so far the lab would suffer, or b) the scientist not find a CEO willing to play second banana to a geek, regardless of prestige and compensation?

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19. Jim on August 15, 2005 3:50 PM writes...

I agree with your point on drug companies, and if you look at the total salaries spent on drug reps vs. scientists, I'll bet you'd find a 2-1 ratio, more spending for marketing. A quick Yahoo! gives one PhD up there: Dr Jean-Pierre Garnier, Glaxo #3 in major drug manufacturers. Granted, he's the only one of the top 7 or 8. For tech companies, start with Intel - Noyce, Moore, Grove, Barrett - all PhD technologists, until Otellini. Go through the rest of the semiconductor companies, and I don't think you'll find a PhD, but plenty with technical capabilities.

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20. daen on August 15, 2005 8:25 PM writes...

A recent slashdot post which you may or may not find relevant/interesting/controversial/amusing (a tip of the hat towards boingboing for it, anyway).

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