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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

« Best When Used By. . . | Main | Vial Thirty-Three: The Third Run »

June 8, 2006

Peter Kim, So Far

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Posted by Derek

There's an article in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal (subscriber-only link here) (Update: also available freely here - thanks to Kyle of The Chemblog for finding this) on Merck's head of research, Peter Kim. It's well-written, in the sense that depending on how you come to it, you could come away with very different conclusions. If you're a fan of Kim and his approach since he took his current job, then you may well see a portrait of a driven, hard-working scientist struggling to change an insular, arrogant research culture and drag it into the real world. But if you're not so sure about Kim's managerial virtues, you can find evidence that he's in well over his head.

As the article notes, one of the big changes he's made is the number of deals that Merck has been signing. To be fair, the company was probably going to pick up the pace on outside collaborations anyway when its late-stage pipeline took so many hits, but maybe not to this extent. Much is made of a "charm school" operation where Merck's people were supposedly told not to be so haughty with potential small-company partners. I find it hard to imagine that this made a huge difference, though. Merck most certainly does have an attitude, even now, but I have to think that small company pitchmen are used to getting the same stuff everywhere they go.

Everyone knows the score at these presentations. The people from the smaller outfit are saying "We have something that you don't. Even though you're big and have more money than we do, believe us, you want this." And their counterparts on the other side of the table are saying "Prove it. We know that you think we're a big piggy bank to be turned over and shaken, but no nickels are coming out until you show us something more than snappy PowerPoints". The glad-handing approach that the article portrays Kim as using sounds to me like a recipe for overpaying for deals.

But my favorite part is on the various departures that have taken place:

Soon after he arrived, he angered Emilio Emini, Merck's senior vice president of vaccine research. During his 20 years at the company, Dr. Emini had done some seminal AIDS work. Dr. Kim wanted to hire another accomplished but controversial AIDS researcher, David Ho, to oversee him. Dr. Emini strongly objected. . .(and) left Merck in early 2004. He now works for rival Wyeth. . .

Vetern Merck research managers such as Kathrin Jansen, who was instrumental in the devleopment of (cervical cancer vaccine) Gardasil, and Scott Reines, a top researcher in psychiatric diseases, also took jobs at other pharmaceutical companies. . .Dr. Kim hired other academic scientists who enjoyed good reputations but, like hiim, had never developed a drug. . ."

Not having developed a drug is no particular shame - all of us in the industry start out never having done that. The thing is, we also start out knowing that everyone else in the place knows more than we do about it. High-level academia transplants have a poor track record in the drug industry - if you'd like some more evidence, you can ask some people with a few years of experience at Bristol-Meyers Squibb. Kim is probably correct when he says that Merck had too much of a "That's not how we do things here" attitude, but people sometimes forget that academia has no immunity to that disease, either.

Update: I also recommend checking out the take at Health Care Renewal, from an ex-Merck employee.

Comments (10) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry) | Drug Industry History


COMMENTS

1. Kyle on June 9, 2006 7:02 AM writes...

David Ho is certainly brilliant, but it's obvious that Ho's style is TOTALLY contradictory to what Kim was trying to do. Emilio Emini had to know that.

You can read the WSJ article here if you don't have an account with WSJOL.

Permalink to Comment

2. S SIlverstein on June 9, 2006 12:45 PM writes...

My take on the WSJ article is here.

Permalink to Comment

3. Anonymous on June 9, 2006 4:37 PM writes...

I think Meck could use someone like Fred Hassan. F. Hassan was the first from all pharma top guys who did not strike me as a complete slimebag. (Even though he went along with the Pfizer acqusition of Pharmacia - and we all got axed as a result).

Permalink to Comment

4. Derek Lowe on June 9, 2006 8:45 PM writes...

Anon, for some years there have been rumors that Fred Hassan also thinks that Merck could use someone like Fred Hassan. . .

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5. secret milkshake on June 9, 2006 10:26 PM writes...

(I was the anon.) At the time, I had the impression that he did not want to sell out but Pfizer overpaid so he had no choice. That is what he said at the time. (maybe I am naive - but at least he does not come across as a conceited bullshiter. And he understands that med-chem research takes time and cannot be accelerated by wishful thinking. He is not arrogant and he could be hands-off as long as the things work)

Merck was ripe for management changes even before the Vioxx fiasco but it was considered a great company - so it so it was only natural that post-merger Hassan looking for job would drop hint or two. I don't know, just guessing.

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6. PS on June 10, 2006 3:27 PM writes...

Here is some trivia on Hassan. He is the son of Pakistans first ambassador to India - given that he must have been born with good politician skills.

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7. George Laszlo on June 10, 2006 9:55 PM writes...

There are probably several deeper messages here beyond the influence of one man on a company. One of those may be the recognition by large pharmaceutical firms that R&D is no longer their forte. They do best at sales and marketing and a passable job on the manufacturing front. So it makes sense to in-license Phase II and early Phase III compounds while you try to figure out how to salvage R&D. One possible scenario for that is to decentralize and chop out several layers of management. Another is to take a large stake in a biotech and leave them alone. The best example of this is Roche with its large stake in Genentech. While even they are tempted to bring that company into the Roche fold, perhaps over time they will think better of it. Innovation seems to work best when there are lots of companies/groups doing there own thing. Only a few will hit the vein of gold.

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8. Jim Hu on June 11, 2006 1:53 AM writes...

I'm biased, since I know and respect Peter from his MIT days, but isn't it too soon to tell?

http://dimer.tamu.edu/simplog/archive.php?blogid=3&pid=3740

Did trackbacks get turned off?

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9. Anonymous on April 5, 2009 4:30 PM writes...

I believe it is time for Derek to update his blog on this total failure!

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10. Ann on January 30, 2010 12:33 PM writes...

I believe peter kim should step down. Since his joining merck there have been nothing but problems. He refuses to own up to them.

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